With the technological capacity to work anywhere, any time – or, as many feel, "everywhere, all the time" – it is increasingly difficult for employees to switch off when they leave the office.
Company-supplied communications devices accompany them home, to family gatherings, to dinners out with friends. Some fast-trackers even sleep with their electronic gadgets (although often it's consensual).
Now employees – and, to a certain extent, their employers – are attempting to re-establish some boundaries.
Employees are staggering under the weight of expectations, either real or perceived, that they have to be "always on." Employers are concerned – or should be – not only about employee burnout, but about running afoul of employment standards laws governing hours of work, say Krista Hiddema and Stuart Ducoffe, partners in a Toronto-based employment law firm and co-founders of human resources consulting firm e2r Solutions.
So in the spirit of loosening the bonds, if not slipping them, here are 10 pointers from the pros:
Don't be Pavlovian
Curb the urge to instantly respond to every work-related message or phone call, says workflow and productivity consultant Robert Steinbach. "You can't control the incoming e-mails, because it's just a barrage, but you can control what you do with your time," he says. "I counsel my clients to make appointments with themselves for checking e-mail."
If you are off the air, say so
"Choose what's right for you and then be clear about when you are available and accessible," says Nora Spinks, chief executive officer of the Vanier Institute of the Family. Use a voice mail greeting or bounce-back e-mail to say you will be checking messages at such and such a time, Ms. Spinks says. Advising correspondents on when they can expect a response has the added benefit of allowing them "to get on with their day." If it's a genuine work emergency, they'll track you down.
Time to invest in a second device?
Some people have two devices, one for work and one for home, but there's "still a large proportion of people who have their work and personal on one device, so you can't shut off," says Karen Seward, executive vice-president for marketing and business development at Morneau Shepell. "If you pick up the phone and you are looking at it for your personal and there's your work, how do you stop getting engaged?"
Check the company policy
There's growing recognition among employers that just because employees can work 24/7 doesn't mean they should, Ms. Hiddema and Mr. Ducoffe said in a recent presentation on managing round-the-clock expectations. Some employers now have policies explicitly restricting the use of BlackBerrys and other devices for work-related business on nights and weekends. "It protects employees from burnout but, quite frankly, it also protects employers against allegations that may surface later in regard to unpaid overtime," Ms. Hiddema says.
If there is no written policy, ask what is expected of you with that company-issued – and paid for – smartphone or tablet. For employees, there are obvious benefits: the flexibility of being able to telecommute, to get a jump on the day by working on the commuter train, to work on that overseas deal from home instead of trekking to the office in the middle of the night. But when does the workday end and private time begin? Before initiating this conversation, though, be aware of "the undercurrents that we all know exist in the workplace," and try to raise the issue in a way that doesn't label you as "a person who is not on the fast track," Mr. Ducoffe suggests.
Work out the parameters
Constant availability can create unrealistic expectations for productivity, speed and efficiency, Ms. Hiddema and Mr. Ducoffe said in their recent presentation to the Human Resources Professionals Association convention in Toronto. If employers and their employees do not work out parameters on when they can reasonably be tapped for night and weekend work, "I think we are going to see more medical related ailments that arise, in part, due to stress," Mr. Ducoffe says. This calls for "a common sense approach," rather than a set of rigid rules, says Bill Wilkerson, co-founder of the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health. Differentiate between the urgent and the non-urgent before pushing the send button, says Mr. Wilkerson. "It's usually a whim, somebody can't sit on an idea, it's transporting one's own sense of urgency and imposing it on another person."
Don't "set yourself up"
"If you don't want to be bugged after six o'clock, don't set yourself up to be bugged after six o'clock," says Ms. Spinks, who was founder and president of consulting firm Work Life Harmony Enterprises before taking on the CEO role at the Vanier Institute. If you respond to e-mails at 10 o'clock at night on a regular basis, people will come to expect it. "If you want to work at night, go right ahead," she adds, but hold off on sending the file until the morning.
What message are you sending?
Managers may not realize how stress-inducing those late-night e-mails can be, says Mr. Steinbach. Does the boss expect an immediate response? Is my job on the line if I don't reply right away? It could simply be that it's the only time a busy manager can attend to unfinished business, Mr. Steinbach says. Ms. Spinks says if your company has not banned after-hours e-mails (and most have not), the recipient needs to know when the response is required – right away, next business day, next week?
Protect your private time
It's unhealthy to be constantly on call, says Mr. Wilkerson, who adds that long hours do not necessarily result in greater productivity. "One's personal mental, emotional and physical space is more important than time when it comes to doing good work," he says. "You have to be able to turn off, you have to be able to go to a restaurant without obsessively checking your device," says Ms. Hiddema.
Monitor your own after-hours habits
Often the compulsion to check up on work is self-imposed. You are competing for a promotion, you want to keep tabs on who is doing what, you feel indispensible – or want to appear that way. Monitor the number of times you engage in work-related activities during what is supposed to be personal time, and if you find your after-hours work activity is over the top, scale back – "sort of like Weight Watchers for the connected," says Mr. Ducoffe.