What does “after work” mean anymore?
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Not much. These days, employers can Slack you late Friday night, send you an email Saturday morning, and text you with an “emergency” on Sunday night.
In America’s workaholic culture, instant messaging is the 3 a.m. tequila shot nobody needs. But here we are, slumped over, bleary eyed, and paranoid every time our phones vibrate.
The answer to our collective nightmare could be legislation. New York City is considering a bill that would give employees the “right to disconnect.” It doesn’t ban bosses from emailing their underlings after hours. Instead, it would fine them $250 if they punish an employee for not responding.
Of course, there are plenty of people who’ve already been chewed out for not hitting that “reply” button.
Jenna was working on a PR campaign for a consumer electronics brand when she got an email on a Saturday night. (Like several people Mashable talked to, she insisted that her full name not be used — for obvious reasons.)
She wasn’t the lead on the project, which was for an event promoting a product launch that was six months away. The email wasn’t addressed to her. And she says she wasn’t the employee best equipped to answer the client’s question.
So she let it wait until Monday. Months later, she was dismayed to see the email incident on her performance review.
But she “wasn’t surprised.” Jenna didn’t get along with two of her coworkers, who were also on the email and had known each other for several years. It felt like a Mean Girls clique.
The inability to disconnect isn’t just annoying. It’s bad for your health.
“I had discovered the toxicity on my team pretty early on,” she said.
Not all employees are BFFs, of course. But now they can bother you 24 hours a day… and complain to your manager when you don’t respond.
The inability to disconnect isn’t just annoying. It’s bad for your health. A 2016 study from Virginia Tech, Colorado State University and Lehigh University professors called it “anticipatory stress,” defined as “a constant state of anxiety and uncertainty as a result of perceived or anticipated threats.” Except, instead of a predator hiding in the brush, we’re afraid of being asked to shoot people emails about Q1 sales.
At first glance, this state of affairs seems like a win for companies. Why wouldn’t they want employees ready to work around the clock?
But the study found an “always on” work culture is a double-edged sword that leads to “burnout, higher turnover, more deviant behavior, lower productivity, and other undesirable outcomes.”
Jeffrey Pfeffer, a Stanford professor, says in his new book Dying for a Paycheck that the stress from long hours, after-work emails, and toxic bosses accounts for 120,000 excess deaths in the United States each year.
“We are literally killing people,” he told Slate.
At least some employees can leave their jobs. Jessica, then a geologist, didn’t see the email her boss sent her after she left work on Friday night.
A project was behind schedule. Her boss needed someone to run a drilling rig over the weekend to take soil samples. Despite the fact she wasn’t in that department, he asked her to fill in on Saturday morning— probably, she suspects, because she got paid the least and wouldn’t contribute as much to the project’s mounting costs.
On Monday morning, after she returned from a weekend vacation, he berated her “to tears” about not responding to the email she hadn’t seen. He told her she was lucky she still had a job.
“I felt like all my hard work to that date was useless”
“I work outside of business hours and on weekends regularly and always put 110 percent into my career,” she said. “So, it was especially upsetting as I felt like all my hard work to that date was useless.”
She quit shortly afterward. That, of course, isn’t always an option — especially in industries with a ton of people competing over very few job openings.
Even if you’re a contractor, you’re not free. Clients want around-the-clock access to services, which can be hell for the people who are trying to please them.
Jacque, a marketing and branding consultant, once got a Slack message from a client on a Sunday afternoon. She didn’t see it until Monday morning, when she responded.
Her client was not happy.
“She definitely flew off the handle and became very flustered at me,” Jacque said. “She became very agitated. I later found out it was because I didn’t respond to her Slack.”
Hope for the future
So, how do we change the work culture? If the laws don’t change, it might be up to managers and business owners to take a stand.
“I let my team know my personal expectations — they are not expected to respond outside their own business hours,” said Kim Lenox, who manages around 35 employees across eight cities, including San Francisco, Dublin, and Melbourne.
She’s VP of product design at Zendesk — which, appropriately enough, has a very zen attitude toward work. When she arrived, she noticed the company already had a “culture of a healthy life/work balance” so that employees could “recharge and renew.” (Glassdoor ratings back up her claims.)
Still, that culture means nothing if your individual manager doesn’t lead by example. Encouraging a healthy work/life balance is about more than just not screaming at employees — although that helps. It also involves actively encouraging people to take a break.
Lenox makes sure to remind employees in emails that they don’t have to respond outside of business hours. And while employees can respond to emails and Slack messages after work, “if someone is doing it frequently, I’ll suggest they stop,” she said.
If only more companies had that same attitude. Back in 1940, it took legislation to force U.S. companies to officially limit work weeks to 40 hours. Of course, businesses found workarounds, which is the reason this article needed to be written in the first place.
Employers would probably try to do the same with “right to disconnect” laws. You don’t have to punish someone directly for not replying to a Slack message — you could just create a culture where people who don’t respond never get raises or promotions.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t at least try to change things. Legislation, progressive employers, and employees could tip the scales in a more sustainable direction. Our health and productivity could depend on it.