It's just a phone call or two on the drive home. A few emails after dinner. An extra hour or two on a big project before bed.
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And you had to cancel plans a few times. That one time on vacation the kids went to the beach without you so you could finish up that report your boss needed. Oh, and that was your first vacation in five years.
Is this how workers behave at your company? Many employees are afraid to disconnect from their jobs at the end of the workday or even while on vacation. With mobile technology delivering every update, alert, and crisis directly to our pockets, it can be difficult to distinguish between being on the clock or off. This is how employees get stressed out – and burnt out.
The Price of Never Turning Off
To avoid burnout, it's important for companies to develop cultures where workers feel empowered to disconnect when they're not in the office.
"A strong internal culture that addresses people and processes is essential in preventing burnout, which is truly a likely outcome in an organization where team members are expected to work after hours routinely," says Bryan Miles, CEO of BELAY, a virtual staffing firm. "A culture that prizes balance and availability within reason originates from the top and filters down throughout the organization. The tone is set by leadership: If the executive ranks are always 'on' – sending emails at all times of day, making demands on middle managers, and never going on vacation – then every single rung beneath them on the organizational chart will begin to reflect the same practices and work style."
And that's the best-case scenario. The worst case: Top talent starts to resign, heading for workplaces that give them a break from time to time.
"It takes time to develop a healthy professional culture that sets clear parameters between work and home," Miles says. "This is especially so if an organization finds itself trying to change a culture that hasn't served employees' interests in this manner [in the past]."
Miles offers the following three tips to help businesses get started on the journey toward healthier cultures:
Establishing email-free times: "Emergencies notwithstanding, managers can set departmental constraints on when interoffice emails should be sent – and even when office systems and applications are available for use."
Encouraging vacation and PTO: "Employers are increasingly adopting a 'use it or lose it' policy regarding paid time off. While there are business reasons for this, the standard also encourages employees to plan accordingly in taking a breather each year."
Role-modeling the culture: "Senior leaders and people managers should reflect the culture that the company says it supports. This means not working until 7 p.m. each day and not sending emails at 5 a.m., for example. Supervisors who do work in this way send the message that they expect their teams to conduct themselves in the same fashion."
Disconnecting Makes Business Sense
In the long run, letting employees recharge their batteries in their off-hours has a positive impact on a company's bottom line.
"It does businesses no favors as employers to create environments where employees are tired, stressed out, and unfocused," says Miles. "Nobody does his or her best running on fumes. If we think of the energy we want our children to have the morning before taking an important test or even the care we give our pets prior to taking them with us on a long road trip, then it's easy to see the parallels. It's no longer a debate that employees need time to recharge to avoid burnout. The resulting turnover and onboarding are costly to employers."
In many workplaces, there's a constant feeling that whatever doesn't get done by the end of the day will never be completed.
"There's always tomorrow," Miles says. "The ability to step away from a project or a problem for a while often allows you to come back the next day with a different perspective because you've had a chance to clear your mind."
Miles says it pays for employers to remember that their workers are people, not machines.
"Overall well-being is essential to self-care," he explains. "It enables us to be at our best on the job and in other aspects of our lives. Work is only a portion of what is important in life. Employees who are able to spend time with family and participate in activities are happier people."
When employees are in a rush to finish or become overtired, their work suffers.
"In addition to burnout, mistakes are made when people are tired or frustrated," Miles says. "Such slip-ups could be minor, but they could also have major consequences in terms of product quality, service delivery, or liability."
Taking Personal Responsibility for Actions
It's also up to employees to hold themselves accountable when they do things that lead them toward burnout.
"Much of what workers should do to maintain work-life balance requires drawing a line in the sand, too," Miles says. "Just as employers need to set the tone, employees have a responsibility to abide by lifestyle factors that affect personal satisfaction."
Here are five tips from Miles to help workers turn off at the end of the day:
Optimize time: "A personal time study might reveal opportunities where time is wasted at work and away from work. Poor time management is a key reason for productivity problems that manifest in people bringing work home."
Nix email notifications: "Removing mobile phone notifications helps to reduce work-related distractions. The 'Do Not Disturb' feature can also be activated to eliminate push notifications."
Workers should consider what's really important in their lives: "If work takes the lion's share of one's time and attention, there are likely many other things – and people – being neglected."
Reduce pressure on self: "Sometimes, working after hours stems from extra-high personal standards. In other words, people put undue pressure on themselves. If employees take small steps that reduce work stress, the odds are that the business will still be running, their performance will still be on target, and nothing negative will result."
Find accountability partners: "Employees should seek outside assistance in fostering better balance. An option is to ask a family member or friend to remind them of their boundaries – and alert them when they're being compromised."