Always On: How Work-Life Balance Is Disappearing (And What To Do About It)

You take a work call while stirring spaghetti sauce or watch a webinar while pedaling your Peloton. You check your work email before bed just to make sure a problem hasn’t arisen since you logged off a few hours earlier. You respond to overnight Slack messages from the team in Japan before you get out of bed in the morning. 

If you’ve taken part in any of these activities, you might be suffering from being “always on.”  

Even if you haven’t heard of the term “always on”, you’ve likely already experienced it. “Always on” refers to the increasingly blurred separation between work and personal life, made worse by learning how to work remotely during the pandemic, as well as advances in instant communication options like email and corporate internal messaging services. 

“Always on” means employees are always available, always reachable, and always connected to their work lives — which comes at the cost of losing their work-life balance. Eurofound, the agency tasked with improving working conditions in the EU, found that “people who work regularly from home are more than twice as likely to surpass the maximum of 48 working hours per week, compared to those working on their employer’s premises.” Additionally, almost 30% of remote workers report working after work hours “every day or several times a week,” which is significantly more than the reported 5% of office workers who reported the same. 

While most of us would take issue with employees working 14-hour days or logging off only to sleep or eat, many of us have fallen prey to the idea that being connected to work outside of business hours is acceptable. But in reality, that constant connection to work has continued to creep into our personal lives and figuring out how to balance work and life has become increasingly difficult and costly.

 

Why is balancing work and life becoming more difficult? 

Employee work-life balance is disappearing in part because of the rise of instant communication in the workplace. According to a constant connectivity study published by Florida State University, “Advances in communications technology, including mobile devices like smartphones, tablets, and laptops, have allowed organizations to remain constantly connected to their employees both during and after work hours.” Communication that used to take place at meetings and around the water cooler can now be done instantly online at low cost to employers.

In addition to email, most workplaces now use internal instant messaging services like Slack to communicate faster. These are often used for more informal conversations, but instant messages can be perceived as more urgent, with many employees downloading internal messaging apps onto their personal devices to be reachable at all times. 

The global marketplace has also played a role in creating a culture of constant communication. With teams spread across time zones, work is taking place outside some employees’ business hours, with workers forced to use emails or instant messaging to respond to requests both before and after their working day. 

Finally, the pandemic and the rise of remote work have meant that work and personal activities now take place at the same location. While employees used to be able to log off once they left the office, they now live at their home office and therefore often find creating distinct boundaries between work and home a challenge. 

"Always on" culture creates problems for employees and employers 

This constant connection to work might seem like a boon to employers, but in fact, many are finding the opposite to be true. Functioning as “always on” means many employees experience burnout from not taking restorative breaks and a lack of manageable work-life balance. Additionally, an employee’s constant connection to work can cause personal conflicts and can lead to a higher employee turnover rate. Moreover, due to the nature of the pandemic, many employers, decision-makers and policy-makers began to experience the same feelings of burnout as their employees had.

In addition to burnout, employees who regularly jump from one set of notifications to another can experience considerable drops in productivity and can struggle to engage in what’s known as deep work or work that’s undertaken without distractions. A constant state of reactivity can considerably bring down a worker’s feelings of productivity, and therefore their feelings of satisfaction with their performance. 

How can you achieve better work and life balance? 

So what can you do to fend off “always on” work communication and restore work-life balance? Some companies are taking the lead themselves by helping to create boundaries for their employees that preserve a better work-life balance. Slack is one such company that encourages its employees not to check their own Slack messages after working hours, and other companies may begin to follow suit in response to the increase in working from home

Governments are also taking a stand in the work-life balance battle. In early 2021, the European Parliament asked the Commission to design a law that would reinforce work-life boundaries for remote work and limit constant connectivity, explaining that “interruptions to non-working time and the extension of working hours can increase the risk of unremunerated overtime, can have a negative impact on health, work-life balance and rest from work.” They called for measures that would dictate that employers not require workers to be available outside working time, encourage co-workers to refrain from contacting colleagues for work purposes, and protect workers from the threat of dismissal or retribution if they seek to maintain work-life balance . 

Conversations about work encroaching on your personal life can be tough to broach, but HR experts suggest having an honest conversation with your employer or manager about the situation. If they are unresponsive, you can speak with an HR representative to help mediate the situation if it persists. 

However, there are also small shifts you can make personally to combat “always on” connectivity in your life and manage life and work balance challenges better. 

  1. Turn off notifications for messages outside of work hours: While some employers may not take kindly to their employees being unreachable outside of business hours, you could start by turning off notifications during a set time each week and informing your colleagues that this is a time during which you’re unavailable for work-related matters. 
  2. Set boundaries for your personal life: Setting personal boundaries can help you regain personal time that is restorative. You might choose to stop checking messages during certain hours or put your phone on silent while you take an exercise class or go for a walk, and begin to create personal time that isn’t interrupted by work. 
  3. Cut down on unnecessary messages: Making deliberate decisions about contacting your work colleagues out of hours can set an example within your own team. Rather than emailing or messaging a colleague outside of work hours, wait until the workday has started unless the communication is truly urgent. Mentioning to colleagues that you wanted to wait until business hours to contact them can plant the seed in their minds that personal hours should remain sacred. 
  4. Embrace asynchronous communication: While cutting down on superfluous messages outside of normal work hours is important, there are often times — especially when working with distributed teams — where it simply isn’t possible. Learning to ignore messages received outside normal working hours can help to alleviate the pressure to answer those questions immediately and set important communication boundaries for teams working across multiple time zones.
  5. Practice separating work and life: According to an article published by Harvard University, practicing separating work and life tasks can actually make you more proficient at separating work and life tasks, “The good news is that self-regulation is a muscle that gets stronger the more you use it. In other words, no one is cursed to live a life without willpower — it can be improved.” Exercising your self-regulation muscles can help you resist checking work emails late at night or zipping an email to a colleague over breakfast. 

Managing work and life balance is a challenge, but considering ways to protect your personal life is a good first step in achieving a better work-life balance. 

How Wrike can help you balance work and home life

Wrike’s work management software cuts down on interruptions outside of work by providing your team with a single digital hub where everyone can access the files and information they need whenever they need them. Status updates and progress reports can be viewed without interrupting colleagues’ personal time, so everyone can work happily. Start a two-week trial and discover how Wrike can help your team manage their work-life balance better today.

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