Labour markets tend to change their structure slowly and incrementally. New technology has changed many more jobs than it has destroyed, and it does not destroy work. A key test for the future will be whether we can create resilient and effective structures and practices in the workplace to minimise the adverse impacts and maximise the benefits.
Digital resilience in a 24/7 world
Are organisations responsible for helping employees switch off from work? Is technology to blame for increased levels of stress and a 24/7 working culture?
Technology is a great enabler and for many it significantly enhances their working lives and flexibility to work whenever and wherever they prefer. The flexibility to work from different locations and while on the move brings significant benefits to employees and to employers. When work can be continued past normal working hours, productivity can be increased. However, the downsides are beginning to emerge and the openness of technology to allow us to sometimes ‘overwork’ is reaching a hiatus.
The boundaries between our work and non-working lives have become permeable with little guidance on when and how to disconnect from work. It is clear that switching off from work is proving very difficult for individuals; from a recent UK survey of 4000 adults, over 55% indicated that they check their work emails after they have left the office (AXA 2017). The Chartered Institute of Manager’s corroborate this finding indicating that that 59% of bosses also do this and that it can lead to stress, anxiety and depression. Younger generations as digital natives are relying on technology to manage their lives and socialise, leading to a compulsion that impacts on sleep and well-being.
Learning how to manage the impact of technology on our lives is becoming increasingly important. Technology and the ability to network and connect so widely means that we spend more time than ever reaching for and attached to our phones and tablets. It is particularly important when related to work activity as ‘staying switched on’ means that we cannot recuperate fully. This can eventually lead to increased stress and burn out. Unfortunately the compulsion to work after hours has become normalised. To manage this we need this think about our well-being and develop strategies to cope – this could be called ‘digital resilience’.
Digital resilience is therefore the ability to manage technology so that work and health outcomes are managed equally, effectively and importantly, sustainably. It means that we can continue working in a flexible manner but at the same time realise when it is time to switch off and focus on other important aspects of lives, such as well-being, relationships and being present in the moment. When we look at a simplistic definition, ‘switching off’ means to stop giving your attention to something or somebody. In the case of technology it means ensuring that you know when to do this appropriately.
Line managers clearly have a role to play and as illustrated earlier, find it very difficult to ‘switch off’ themselves; as such they are presenting a poor role model to their reportees. When home working or working remotely after hours, workers can become invisible. It becomes harder for the manager to observe when a staff member may be struggling.
Organisations are trying out different methods to reduce work flow, including cutting off emails after hours (in France, Italy and the Philippines) and in some cases deleting emails during holiday periods. It is a shame that we have reached the point where organisations feel they have to reduce what is after all a key advantage of technology, in that it ultimately makes our work more flexible. The solutions may not be in switching off email but helping organisations to manage this more effectively.
It is important that any strategies or interventions are worked on through three levels – the individual, the line manager and the organisation. If all levels are not reached then it is unlikely that the changes will be successful.
Personal characteristics can play a huge part in how individuals manage their technology use. It has been found that those who are more conscientious will be more likely to continue working after hours and on their emails.
There are some strategies that can help:
• Training in use of email can help to increase skills in how to file and compartmentalise so that checking emails does not take all day, leaving time for larger projects.
• Mindfulness inventions can work for some workers but not all; it is important to note individuals’ differences.
• Speak to your family – are you overworking without knowing? It can be good to get feedback.
Overall, moderation is key. Knowing when to stop and what working hours are right for you is important.
Line managers have an important role in ensuring that individuals do not sink into a large workload. Low wellbeing and stress can become invisible when agile working.
Line managers can help by:
• Checking in with members of staff, checking that their workload is manageable, finding the pressure points and supporting through difficult periods.
• Helping to identify and manage e-competencies. These can be specific to work using technology such as email management, or perhaps more generally self organisation and when to switch off.
• Managers also play a key role in setting a good example. Examples could be ensuring that emails are sent during working hours, not whilst on leave and generally making sure expectations are realistic.
The workplace is changing and technology is now impacting the way in which we can and do prefer to work. It is important that organisations keep pace with these changes, ensuring that policies are reflective and that working practices are managed to avoid stress and poor well-being. Policies are not enough by themselves; giving ‘permission’ to reduce expectations and not to check emails outside of normal working hours or when on leave. It is important that all levels in the organisations set a good example and therefore set expectations for the working culture. This is particularly important for executive and senior management teams as key influencers.
Our interconnectedness and ability to work for longer periods of time and at differing hours can be very productive but also counter-productive for our well-being. It is important that organisations work with individuals to produce guidance that is effective for all. Individual differences and requirements for flexibility can make providing policies that apply to everyone difficult but what is most important is to ensure that everyone can benefit and that a supportive culture is developed which focuses on the well-being of all staff members.
For more information please contact: Dr. Christine Grant C.Psychol., SFHEA, AFBPsS
Principal Lecturer, Occupational Psychology, Coventry University
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