The past 18 months have recast the way the world works. Within the space of a few months, remote work became the new norm, and while many companies are still considering what their new long-term approach will be, it’s clear that there’s no going back to the confines of 9–5 office life.
While most people would agree that the rise of remote work is a good thing, no work model is perfect, and nearly all working from home have become familiar with the drawbacks of remote work—in particular how it can make switching off seem almost impossible.
With health and wellbeing top-of-mind across global society, many countries are making moves to enshrine workers’ right to disconnect. To have any chance of success, companies need to do the same.
Once the world was forced into remote work, it didn’t take long for the subsequent complications to rear their head. When you live where you work and work where you live, switching off becomes much harder to do; there’s no physical separation between personal and professional, no buffer between these two separate spheres of our lives. Feeling invisible while working remotely is another contributing factor, and many people felt they needed to go the extra mile and work longer hours to prove their commitment.
Plus, for most of us, our phones are always within reach, and when we use them for work as well as our personal lives, it causes us to be constantly switched on—even if we don’t intend to be. Small actions, like checking work emails when you’re in bed or replying to Slack comments over dinner, soon add up, and though we may not realize it, we become constantly available, constantly connected. Studies show that always being switched on harms our work/life balance and causes stress and anxiety.
The good thing about all this is that the problem was acknowledged early on. The rapid rise in levels of stress and burnout meant we were forced to address some of the problems that are created by remote work—and in many cases, these conversations have found their way into new laws and regulations. Take Ireland, for example, which has introduced a new right to disconnect code, which states that workers have the right to not regularly work outside normal hours and not be punished for refusing to work out of hours.
The same changes are being pushed through in the European Parliament, where MEPs propose creating a law that encourages people working remotely to disconnect outside of their working hours, and not feel forced to engage in phone calls, emails or other forms of digital communication outside working hours. But regardless of whether a country is introducing new laws or not, there’s plenty companies can do when it comes to setting their own “right to disconnect” policy.
Managers play a huge part in reducing the risk of burnout and encouraging employees to disconnect. One of the most helpful things you can do is to set clear boundaries around communication and response times: to ensure there’s no confusion about what constitutes “normal working hours”, and to help to keep professional and personal time distinct, make sure everyone knows exactly when their working day begins and ends. Take time to manage expectations, and make sure people know that if they send a message after a certain time, they shouldn’t expect a reply until the next day.
Ensuring that you accurately document all work hours and overtime is also vital. Not only is this a legal requirement if you’re an EU company, it’s also one of the simplest and easiest ways to protect against burnout and ensure your employees actually feel able to disconnect. Keep an eye out for any employees doing serial overtime, and if you identify a problem, try to understand the real reason why that person might be working longer; do they need more support? Are they trying to prove something? Rather than just trying to quickly fix the issue, actually solving the root of the problem can stop it from occurring again.
Leading by example plays a big part in creating an atmosphere where people feel able to disconnect, too, so be sure to check your own behavior; don’t ambush people with calls at the end of the day, and be conscious about how you use your breaks. Try not to send messages out of working hours, because this can set an expectation that employees will feel pressure to follow. Think about different ways you can show other people that you value your own wellbeing—whether that’s abstaining from doing any work while on holiday, or scheduling regular breaks and sticking to them, no matter what.
Ultimately though, if you want to encourage your employees to disconnect, it’s important to understand that telling people they can’t send messages outside of normal hours can do more harm than good. We all work in different ways, and studies have shown that people with high levels of anxiety actually want to reply to emails whenever they like—and not being able to do so can exacerbate their stress levels. While managers should lead by example and encourage people to disconnect, it’s important to recognize that switching off must be done in a way that actually suits the employee, too.