Why employees should be encouraged to switch off from technology

28 Aug 2019 By Adam Riley

With an ‘always on’ culture fuelling a rise in mental ill-health, it’s up to organisations to make sure their workers have some down time, says Adam Riley

The technology revolution has transformed the world of work, but it’s also been responsible for fostering a 24/7 working culture where employees can find it difficult to switch off. 

The impact of being constantly connected can have a detrimental effect on our mental health. Despite technologies that have enabled remote and flexible working and, in theory, a better work-life balance, workplace stress is on the rise. A UK study by the Chartered Management Institute found that ‘always on’ managers are now working 29 extra days a year and are suffering from rising levels of stress. 

It’s a similar picture globally. In Singapore, in a study by Willis Towers Watson, 60 per cent of employees admitted to having above-average or high levels of stress. A study by HR think tank Reventure in Australia revealed that almost three-quarters of workers feel stressed out by technology and cannot completely shut off from it. 

Even the expectation that an employee is always contactable can trigger feelings of anxiety. A US study by Virginia Tech found that people may be suffering from excessive stress and anxiety about work expectations, even if they don't actively check work emails out of office hours. 

The mobile workforce is growing and smartphones and tablets enable people to work anywhere anytime. This has skewed the boundaries between work and home and can lead to increased stress and anxiety, instead of a better work-life balance. 

How can businesses get the balance right, especially when operating across borders? 

The ‘right to disconnect’ 

In France, a 2017 law established workers’ ‘right to disconnect’ and requires companies with more than 50 employees to establish hours when staff should not send or answer emails.

In New York, a new bill is currently being discussed; the 'right to disconnect’, which if passed means New Yorkers could legally refuse to answer work emails after hours.

No other countries have gone as far as France in making it law for staff to disconnect at certain times, but some companies are developing policies to restrict usage. In Germany, Volkswagen implemented a policy in 2011 stating that it would stop email servers from sending emails to employee’s mobile phones between 6pm and 7am. Meanwhile, Daimler introduced a policy where employees have the option to set their emails to autodelete while away from the office.

What can employers do?

The link between technology and mental health is something companies need to consider carefully. To ensure their mobile workforce is mentally fit, having policies in place around technology usage is recommended. 

When it comes to employees that travel across different time zones regularly, employers need to be mindful of the impact this can have on sleep patterns, for instance. Often employees are expected to be available on email during office hours, even if they are travelling in a different zone. People can end up doing more hours, leading to work overload and stress. 

Banning emails at certain times could be the answer. Even deleting emails when people are on vacation is an option, although this may be too extreme for some organisations.

Individuals also have to take some responsibility for ensuring they aren’t always available. Managers should lead by example and let their team know when they will and won’t be available. This will filter down and help create a culture where the expectation isn’t for people to be available 24/7. 

In addition to creating specific policies around technology and emails, employers also need a robust mental health strategy, so people who are struggling can get the help and support they need. 

With poor mental health estimated to cost the global economy $16trn by 2030, it’s something employers can no longer ignore. 

Adam Riley is director of global development at Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing

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