What could go wrong with answering a few emails in the evening? Maybe something urgent pops up. We are settling an issue from the day or trying to get ahead for tomorrow. Always being connected and available is one of the ways we prove our work ethic and professionalism.
But the way the digital world creeps into our lives isn’t as harmless as we think. A survey on more than 2,200 professional and academic employees across 40 universities found high levels of stress along with a considerable amount of out-of-hours communication. The results looked like this:
- 21% of respondents had managers who expected them to respond to work-related calls, texts, and email after hours
- 55% sent emails about work in the evening to colleagues
- 30% sent their colleagues work-related digital communication on the weekends while expecting a same-day response.
Workers who had supervisors expecting them to respond to work-related communications after hours, compared to groups who didn’t, reported higher levels of emotional exhaustion and psychological distress.
Long Working Hours are Detrimental to Employee’s Health
According to an Academy of Management study, an “always-on” culture with great expectations survey and respond to work-related emails after hours may prevent people from ever fully disengaging from work, which leads to emotional exhaustion and chronic stress.
It’s not about the effort or time you pour into being always available, but rather the expectation that you should do so. Recent findings show how this type of culture promotes anticipatory stress and hinders workers’ ability to fully detach from work.
More often than not, organizational expectations nurture this inability to disconnect. Even during the times when there are no actual emails to worry about, the simple norm of availability and the actual anticipation of work generate a constant stressor that prevents an employee from work detachment.
It’s Not just Horrible Employers
The same pattern can be found between colleagues. Groups of employees who felt that they had to respond to emails from colleges outside the normal program of work, compared to those who did not, also reported high levels of psychological distress (75% compared to 39%). The same group reported physical health symptoms and higher levels of emotional exhaustion.
Although the survey focused mostly on university employees, this is likely to reflect a society-wide issue of online communication out-of-work hours. Another survey from the Australia Institute showed Aussies were working 5.3 hours unpaid overtime on average per week, more than 4.6 hours the year before.
Markedly, 31% of workers from this survey reported severe or moderate psychosocial disorder, and 62% said they considered the psychosocial safety climate of their workplace very poor.
What does this mean?
The newly-distorted boundaries between our personal and social implications are serious. When employees choose to respond to email or answer calls while at home, this affects their recovery from work – both psychologically and physically.
Being constantly available for work at home can hinder immunity and metabolism health, creating susceptibility to serious health problems such as high blood pressure, infection and depression. What’s more, recent findings from the World Health Organization and International Organization suggest that added work hours may even increase the risk of stroke and heart disease.
Another issue is that when we agree to take on work calls and email out of hours, this also decreases the time for recovery activities like social interaction, fitness and spending time in natural environments. These are important activities to maintain physical and particularly psychological health. The social and personal consequences of work intrusion into home life also have the potential to damage family relationships.
● How Can We Immediate the “Always-On” Culture?
Negotiating work conditions to address the problem is a good start. Adjusting the National Employment Standards to promote the “right to disconnect” will also protect vulnerable low-paid, non-unionized employees who do not have the capacity to negotiate their own work conditions. But while in-place regulations prevent supervisors from getting in touch, it won’t alter the behaviour of colleagues bothering each other. Or the inward pressure many employees feel about working out of hours.
Can an Employee Sue for Emotional Distress?
Given that increasingly more employees are now working remotely, looking after their mental health is crucial. If organizations fail to prevent or deal with complaints of emotional pressure, they could find themselves battling legal troubles.
According to CompensationCalculatorUK.co.uk, there has been a rise in the number and consistency of compensation for workers claiming emotional harm, mostly in relation to unjust dismissal cases. Employees are eligible for claims on the basis they have been unwarrantedly disadvantaged in their employment by way of an unsafe workplace. And psychological stress due to added working time after hours is no stranger here. Unlike physical injury, emotional distress is a subjective term, and the way symptoms present themselves can vary from individual to individual.
Generally, work-related stress is accompanied by symptoms such as decreased morale and engagement, antisocial behaviours and low productivity, as well as mental health problems like depression, anxiety, PTSD, and physical problems such as heart disease and chronic headaches.
Under the health and safety law, managers have a responsibility to identify signs of workplace stress within their organizations. Things like an employee seeming unusually quiet, avoiding eye contact, keeping their camera turned off, increased absenteeism such as sick leave could all be signs of workplace stress.
Managers should also monitor their team’s workload, and they’re communicating out of hours. Harassment and excessive workload are the most common causes of workplace stress. But in a healthy working environment, employees are encouraged to raise concerns and most importantly, managers act to help alleviate the source of stress.
To make a claim for emotional distress, employees must show cause and effect relationships between the cause of their stress – such as excessive workload or being harassed – and the onset of symptoms.
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