Bosses, Burnout, and Why Workers Can’t Unplug

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By Genevieve Douglas

Smartphones and other devices are most frequently the scapegoat for why employees are too plugged in, but bosses who expect a rapid response no matter the hour may also be to blame.

The boss is the No. 1 influence over how employees use their time, but “I don’t think a lot of bosses realize just how influential they are, at least in this regard,” Katie Denis, vice president of Project: Time Off, told Bloomberg Law Oct. 16. “Every time you send an email to your staff and you’re on vacation, that sends a signal that your employees should do the same,” she said.

Only 14 percent of managers successfully unplug when they’re off work, and that number dwindles to 7 percent for senior leadership, according to a recent survey of over 7,000 workers conducted by Project: Time Off. In turn, only about a quarter (27 percent) of employees say they’re actually disconnecting from the digital workplace after hours and during vacation, with many employees checking in occasionally (46 percent) or frequently (27 percent).

“There are significant ramifications for business” when employees and managers don’t have a work-life balance, Helene Wasserman, a shareholder in Littler Mendelson’s Los Angeles office and co-chair of the law firm’s litigation and trials practice group, told Bloomberg Law Oct. 17. Overworked employees often have increased absences, lost productivity, and more frequently leave an organization, she said.

Still, the entirety of the blame shouldn’t necessarily fall on managers, she said. “If there weren’t so many devices to have, employees wouldn’t have the option to be plugged in,” Wasserman said.

Technology has created an expectation of rapid response and availability among bosses and workers, she said. For all of the benefits technology brings, Wasserman said, it has “truly exacerbated and even caused this issue” of employee burnout.

Not Just a Millennial Problem

Despite being dubbed the “digital native” generation, millennial employees—born between 1982 and 2000—also can’t be blamed entirely for workers being tethered to the office regardless of where they are and what time it is, according to the Project: Time Off research. Generation X workers—1965-1984—are actually the least likely to unplug while on vacation (23 percent versus 28 percent of millennials), according to the survey.

The research also found that Generation X workers are most likely to say they feel more comfortable taking time off knowing they can stay connected to work, 82 percent, compared with 77 percent of millennials and 75 percent of baby boomers.

Project: Time Off found that occasional work check ins are more consistent across the generational board, as 30 percent of millennials, 28 percent of Generation Xers, and 22 percent of baby boomers connect to work multiple times a day during their vacations.

Recalibrating Work-Life Balance

Changing the corporate culture is likely one of the only ways for HR to combat connectivity-induced employee burnout, Andrew Challenger, vice president of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., told Bloomberg Law Oct. 17. Managers are also being pressured to stay connected, so they transfer that pressure to employees, he said.

In a survey of 150 managers, Challenger, Gray & Christmas found that nearly 83 percent of supervisors said they reach out to their employees after hours, with 28 percent of those respondents expecting a response within a few hours. “Most employees feel the need to answer their bosses in a timely manner, worrying about it until the issue is handled. This constant pressure not only negatively impacts morale, but also likely results in sub-par work, as workers feel they are constantly on call, with no real downtime,” he said.

Employers that want to create a culture with a work-life balance have to set rules and guidelines about what types of communications are allowed after hours, and even when it’s appropriate and when it isn’t, Challenger said. The negative consequences of employee burnout are real, and overworked employees can be costly to employers, he added. “It’s important to the bottom-line of an organization to pay attention to work-life balance,” he said.

HR should educate managers on the value of having employees with a healthy work-life balance, according to Wasserman. When people have a chance to recharge their batteries, they tend to make fewer mistakes, they tend to stay with the company longer, and they will be more engaged in their work, she said. “This is what businesses should be striving for,” Wasserman said. Moreover, she said, employers could be on the hook for overtime when nonexempt employees are sending emails or answering work calls after hours.

To contact the reporter on this story: Genevieve Douglas in Washington at gdouglas@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jo-el J. Meyer at jmeyer@bna.com

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