Lights out! Time to disconnect

Communication with employees outside work hours is common and of late has become more the ‘norm’ than the exception, but at what cost? 

It’s 8pm, the mobile phone is off, computer is away, time to relax with no more work-related texts or emails! Or is it?

In our world full of technology, smartphones, Apps and electronic devices designed to keep us in touch and improve workplace collaboration, a culture of non-stop contact and work-related comment has blurred the lines of the working day.

While business owners and executives often comment that they work 24/7, a focus on work-life balance, employee wellbeing and after-hours contact with employees has been the subject of industrial relations discussions and new legislation for the past decade.

New York, the city that never sleeps, has recently moved to pass a ‘Right to Disconnect’ bill, restricting after-hours contact with employees, making it illegal for businesses to require employees to check their emails and other electronic forms
of communication during non-work hours. The bill imposes a $250 fine payable to the City and a $500 payment to the employee if an employer breaks the law.

Similar laws have been passed
in France as far back as 2001 and Italy implemented country-wide reforms respecting workers’ right to disconnect from technology outside hours in 2004. German companies, including Volkswagen and Daimler, have taken a corporate responsibility approach to restricting after-hours contact with employees, implementing workplace policy and strict guidelines including shutting down servers from 6pm to 7am, rather than waiting for their government to pass legislation.

Constantly evolving technology and a plethora of Apps such as Slack, ProofHub, Chanty, Ryver, Grip, Flock, Hangouts Chat and Troop Messenger, to name just a few, have created a sense of organisation, control and connectedness in the workplace; however, constant contact with work related tasks and not feeling they can switch off comes at a cost to employee wellbeing.

2013 study by Professor Barbara Pocock, Janine Chapman and Natalie Skinner, from the University of South Australia’s Centre for Work and Life, revealed that almost half of Australian workers, particularly managers and professionals, regularly completed work tasks and checked their emails outside work hours.

Bupa survey in 2017 revealed over 50% of all subjects were kept awake at night because of occupational stress.

Other US research by William Becker at Virginia Tech, suggests the mere expectation of being in contact 24/7 is enough to increase stress and cause strain on both the employee and their families.

To confirm things are not all
rosy in the land of the long weekend, an OECD study in 2016 found
that work-life balance in Australia ranked below the average across developed countries.

While employment legislation in Australia is not up to date with the new techno-era workplace, these trends and research findings create an opportunity for Australian employers to be pro-active and take action to improve conditions that will ensure the health and wellbeing of all employees from line staff to middle management and executives.

These rules and guidelines
should go both ways and include middle management, who are often overlooked when discussing work-life balance. In my role as HR Consultant I constantly reinforce to my teams that their managers are employees too;
so remind them that they have lives outside work and also need to ‘turn o ’ after a big day.

It is quite common to hear a practice manager is being bombarded by late night messages, from disgruntled employees who want to ‘offload a problem’ before retiring for the night.

Without giving a second thought to the impact their message will have on the receiver, employees will shoot off an emotionally fuelled message via text, email or social media app, at 10pm or later. And in many situations, they also expect a reply!

I am sure many readers will relate to the sleepless night that is guaranteed after receiving a resignation letter at 11pm on a Sunday night! Or the ‘We need to talk!’ text – usually written in capitals, accompanied by a sad face emoji.

It is important to clarify that the restricted out-of-hours contact we are discussing does not extend to sharing vital information, such as an employee advising their manager that they
are ill and will not be in to work or a business owner advising an employee of a workplace situation that impacts them directly.

The solution to this new age dilemma, as is usually the case,
lies in clear communication, setting healthy boundaries and developing a company policy that clearly outlines the rights and the expectations around the right to disconnect and reasonable after-hours contact.

This type of policy is not easy to write or implement, as rules and expectations will differ for workplace to workplace and will change again with expectations of the different positions within the business.

Unfortunately, there is simply
no ‘one policy ts all’ solution. Considerations will need to be
given to: the nature and hours of business operation; the company’s unique culture; the need for contact with individual positions; and the employees’ personal circumstances – all of which are constantly changing!

As the countries in the EU and more recently New York city have discovered, enacting legislation around the right to disconnect is challenging. It may be quite some time before the Australian Industrial Relations system delivers new laws; however, organisations that are early adaptors to our changing employment

landscape and develop a ‘Right to Disconnect’ policy will convey to their employees that they care about them as people and not just workers.

Communicating they value work-life balance will go a long way towards improving sta wellbeing and reducing burnout and turnover.

In a market where great employees are scarce, a policy that clearly conveys the business values the health and well-being of their employees is a step towards becoming an employer of choice. AMP #20

Considerations for Creating a ‘Right to Disconnect’ Policy

Be mindful that over sharing and after-hours contact has a negative impact on the health and well-being of both employees and managers.

Adopt a realistic approach to what messages are necessary to send after-hours and what can wait.

Involve the team.

  • Work together to set reasonable boundaries
  • What’s OK and what’s not OK?
  • Agree on and set times such as 9pm–7am for emergency or essential messages only.

Respect the rights of both the employer and employee. Rules and guidelines should be relevant to the workplace culture, di erent positions and the unique circumstances of the individual.

Be proactive and start discussions about what out- of-hours contact is required at interview stage.

Review and revise the policy annually to keep up to date with workplace trends and changes in employee circumstances.