Monday, 21 October 2019

Outing the issue of out-of-hours emails

The BBC has reported on an interesting academic study suggesting that efforts to ban employees from accessing work email out of hours – in an effort to curb burnout – could actually increase anxiety for some.

Who would have thought it: one size does not fit all.

This study does speak to me on a personal level, because I am undoubtedly one of those for whom a blanket ban would cause issues. I also think it’s impractical. In a global economy, many of us need to liaise with people in different time zones, all the time. It’s just not possible, or desirable, to work within some allocated hours for such projects. Squeezing the work required into mandated hours would, as the study suggests, inevitably cause more stress.

That’s not to say I don’t appreciate the spirit of the idea. I can absolutely see the risks of an ‘always on’ environment and can understand why there is a search for potential solutions. But, for me, the answer lies not in mandates from outside an organisation, but in enlightened management within it.

If you work in an organisation – or for a manager – that recognizes the demands of your role, and the peaks and troughs of workload, then you may be able to flex your working pattern accordingly.  To take account of the fact you may be working with colleagues on the other side of the world late at night. To get more of a break from “traditional” working hours elsewhere as a result. That understanding, and that flexibility, helps release the pressure that build up (as long as you deliver!).

The horror stories you hear of people feeling like they always have to be online – on top of their ‘normal’ working hours – emerge from a culture in which expectations are both unhealthy and unrealistic. In such situations, there is no way of releasing the pressure: perhaps a manager insists on you always being ‘present’ and/or imposes rigid working patterns that take no account of the fact you’re essentially working round the clock when others have disconnected. No blanket ban is going to circumvent those cultural issues: the unrealistic expectations will remain, and employees will be expected to keep up through other means. The self-destructive culture will remain in place.

The way to address this issue is, surely, to build rapid and wider understanding about the damage that unrealistic expectations, and rigid working patterns, do to many organisations and the people who work for them. And to showcase alternative ways of working that help keep everyone happy. We have to help organisations, and managers, to have the ‘light bulb moment’ for themselves.