Three myths about disconnecting from work after hours

Three myths about disconnecting from work after hours

Summary: Mobile devices have made it easier than ever to be always tethered to work. This situation is worsened by mistaken beliefs that leaving work in the office will have negative consequences.

TOPICS: Mobility

The insertion of mobile devices in our lives has led to many of us working all the time. We have the smartphone or tablet with us always, even during hours we shouldn't be working. We're convinced that bad things will happen if we don't deal with work stuff no matter the situation. This is not healthy, and truth be told the world won't fall apart if we stop working when we should.

Sitting on the dock of the bay
(Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet)

I admit I'm one of those individuals who feels the need to always be connected so I can deal with work issues no matter the day or time. Work takes priority over downtime, even time spent with family and friends. Mobile devices have contributed to that mindset as they make it easy to be on the clock all the time.

This is very unhealthy for anyone. Downtime is vital for recharging the mental batteries that work saps on a continual basis. There is a good reason work is scheduled for only so many hours a day. Having time off is critical to letting the mind coast for a while. Vacations are crucial to get our thoughts in a good, relaxing place. That's true no matter how hard we try to convince ourselves that we must be on the clock all the time. There are three common misbeliefs about working after hours.

Myth No. 1 — Bosses/clients/customers must always be able to reach me

This sounds so good many of us convince ourselves that we don't like it, but we must deal with work stuff no matter what. The important people in our work life depend on getting in touch when they need something done, and they will be unhappy/disappointed if we don't respond to their outreach immediately.

No doubt this is true for some folks, but most likely if one of these people don't hear back from you at night, on a weekend, or when you are on a scheduled vacation, they will understand. They probably step away from time to time, and they won't judge others who do the same thing.

Failure to step away from work can even come to bite you on the backside. When I was a consultant handling many projects and clients I made it a point to always get back to a client within five minutes of a call or email. I convinced myself that my clients deserved my attention, no matter the day or time of day.

One client set me straight when I called him back quickly after hours. He stated he was glad my consultancy wasn't busy so I could get back to him so fast. That got me to thinking, as I was obviously sending him the wrong message. Truth be told my return call could have waited until the next morning.

My quick response during the work day to another client was even worse. He told me that he knew I was busy and my ability to call him back so fast made him hope that I wasn't calling other clients back while on his dime. That showed me that always having a rapid response, even during the work day, is not always a good thing.

Myth No. 2 — A quick work session won't hurt anything

The email about work comes in and you pick up the smartphone and dash off a quick response to whatever situation has cropped up. Your thinking is it can't hurt anything, you'll deal with it and get back to the leisure activity in progress.

We've all been there and done that. The problem is the mental recharge that was underway has derailed with that simple activity. Work is often stressful, and leisure is how we deal with it. Mental relaxation is as important, perhaps more so, than physically standing down from activity.

It's never just that one quick thing, either. We do it over and over again, forcing our mental state to bounce like a basketball on the court. We flip from relaxing to "full-on" in an instant, and we do it all too frequently. 

Dealing with these work issues on our own time sends a bad message to family and friends. It sends a clear signal that they aren't as important as work stuff. That's especially true of our kids, who learn by example. Mom or Dad may say they enjoy spending time with them, but their actions send a different message. They always end up pulling out the phone to deal with "something at work". That's not the message family should be getting during off hours.

Next: Myth No. 3; Recharge the mind

Topic: Mobility

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  • Staffing

    James - Indirectly you hint at another issue: staffing. If a company needs to have 24/7 response it should have staff working 24/7 with the training and authority to fix problems. What you described is something that has been forgotten: most communications are not very time critical even from clients. Competent people realize they and the vendor are not on the same schedule.

    I have read that many time management gurus advise only reading emails a couple of times a day. So first thing in the morning, after lunch, and before leaving. Sort them into categories such as reply now, reply by tomorrow (time), and read and file. Essentially, treat emails as if they were memos or faxes of olden days; you checked for any that need a response periodically and made sure you tracked them.
    • Email is an intentionally slower communication method

      If the need is urgent, the client will call or text. Use of email means "respond at your convenience".
    • I am on call 24/7

      And it takes a definite toll.on health and mental well being. There are two problems that need addressed. Companies need to have policies in place restricting after hours work. Unfortunately they are unlikely to do that voluntarily. Mobile means that cut down on weekend/night staffing by having staff do on call time.
    • Faxes/Memos

      LL, you are absolutely correct in treating emails as you state.
      Anything urgent will be by telephone or SMS.
      I most of the time treat my mobile phone as a land is not glued to my body wherever I go and quite frankly if I am busy at the time it rings I ignore it. If it is an urgent call they will call again and with CLI, I always call them back when I am able and capable of responding...
      • SMS?

        For me an SMS has a much lower priority than a call. If it is important and needs a timely reply, they will call. If it is important , but doesn't need an instant reply, they will send an email, if it isn't important and doesn't require an instant answer, they will send an SMS.

        Most people who send me SMS do it because they know I am working and don't want to disturb me.
  • I don't work away from work.

    "The insertion of mobile devices in our lives has led to many of us working all the time."

    If your job is "blogger for ZDNet," maybe.

    I don't work away from work. Plain and simple. There's no need to, there's no desire to. I actually have a life to live outside of work.
    • I miss

      the good old days, when catching a train or driving 3 hours to a customer site was 3 hours of peace and quiet, where I couldn't be contacted.

      Working away all the time, I'd generally check emails once a week.
    • I only work during downtime for one reason.

      If I am truly enjoying the challenge of a particular task or problem, I will continue to work on it during my scheduled downtime (and bill for the time.) Otherwise, I refuse to give up my scheduled free time.

      I once got a job at a company who asked me to sign a contract that I would be available for mandatory overtime 24/7. I asked if they planned to pay me for that 24/7 "on call" time. When they answered "no," I said, "then I won't be signing that document." They still hired me, but they were bitter about it. I eventually tired of the guilt trips they were imposing on me and quit the job. They wanted me to work more because they liked the quality and speed of my work. Sadly, they lost me entirely because they refused to accept the amount of time I was willing to give them. Too many companies behave this way and then wonder why their best employees get hired away from them. Employee free time should be treated with far more reverence than it is. If there is really an employee who will shut down your company by not being accessible 24/7, then you should be paying them as much as the CEO. Period.

      I wish I could get my wife to realize the importance of isolated down time. She still suffers from the popular delusion that companies own all of your time, not just the time for which you are paid. She also feels like her company would fall apart if she took more than a few days of vacation at a time. Granted, they pay her extremely well, but she still needs to establish boundaries before she burns out completely and they lose her.
      • Guilt trips only work...

        ...if the recipient suspects he's guilty. Otherwise, they show up as either the ravings of madmen, or obvious (and therefore ineffective) manipulation.

        But you were probably right to leave as soon as it was economically feasible.
        John L. Ries
  • If you can work away from work,

    there's no need for you to be there in the first place.
    • Not exactly true

      Being physically present in the office tends to make it easier to interact with one's boss and colleagues.
      John L. Ries
  • I don't own a smartphone

    I simply don't have a smartphone as I don't need it. If I need to call someone, I wait till I get home.

    Unfortunately there are some companies that demand you be reachable at any time, day or night, even on your days off. Liberty Mutual is one such company.

    The City of New Your pretty much forces its teachers to work when the schools are closed. My mom is a teacher for the City of New York and she always brings work on our vacations.
  • I used to work at home all the time, when I got paid for it.

    I no longer can get OT, so I have no personal reason to do anything on my time. And since my company isn't paying for my data plan or phone, I have zero reason to add work email to my phone.

    My wife had that conversation with her boss a few months back when he said "What if we require you to put work email on your phone?". When she said "Then start paying my data plan." the conversation pretty much ended.

    On the other hand I find that when I have extended downtime, I come up with solutions to things at work that I wasn't even thinking about. Like the brain still runs things in the background. In those cases that I come up with a possible solution, I will certainly email it to myself for the next time I am in the office.
    • The new normal

      First many companies took advantage of the poor job market and knew workers would do whatever is needed to "Stand out" and become a needed employee to avoid layoff etc.

      Second - this is a huge reason BYOD has limited adoption in many companies. People will take the company paid mobile device (if offered) over using their own device due to the cost. With a growing # of people working from home they expect their broadband bill to be subsidized as well. Companies want their cake and eat it too and employees are wising up to the cost shift being time after time dumped on them. Our company is pondering mandatory BYOD to save on wireless expenses and if there is no subsidy my day will end when I leave work.

      Mobile has done much to improve productivity and efficiency at the expense of work / life balance. There was a great report years ago BlackBerry put out that calculated the amount of extra work enabling mobile. Average worker had +2 hours of work when on a mobile device (emails, approvals etc.) So there is proven cost advantages that mobile provides and if enabling mobile impacts the company bottom line - it should be paid and provided by the company.

      This is actually one of the big things that gave BlackBerry the bad perception with people - it's associated with "Work" and seen as a leash. iPhone and consumer devices are more personal and used for entertainment.

      Luckily I don't have much longer to work before retiring. The hyper connected work place is going to give people a max age of 45 before they burn out.
  • Presidents, Governors and Prime Ministers

    are reachable 24/7 and on weekends, and even though they have staff to filter calls for them during off hours, the fact that a call requiring their personal attention COULD pass through that staff at any time must have some effect; in some cases, perhaps, keeping them mentally in "work mode" continuously so that they deliberately handle too much; in other cases, especially while an ongoing crisis is in progress (e.g. Carter during the Iran hostage crisis, Churchill AND Roosevelt during World War II), their subconscious is on the alert for possible interruptions/wakeups so that even while "relaxing" they do not get the full benefit of relaxation.

    Perhaps this is a better argument for term limits than any purely political one. Or, since the Presidential Succession Amendment is in effect in the US, perhaps a President should routinely declare him/herself "temporarily unfit for duty" for a few hours each week on purpose, and LET the VP run the country. This would have to be sold to the voters, though, since the Amendment's original intent was surgery or other illness, not normal human recharging. As it is, some voters and politicians will give plenty of slack to the Presidents they LIKE for time away from the office, but will begrudge the ones they DON'T like even a minimal amount of physical absence, despite their full time availability.

    As far as the question whether the VP is capable of handling things alone for a few hours when the President is technically capable of being awakened, (1) he/she would HAVE to be relied upon in case of death or other removal from office, so (2) voters should not vote for a ticket in which the VP candidate is purely political window dressing, and Presidential candidates should pick running mates who, in their opinion, COULD run the country without them, whether permanently or temporarily (we lucked out in a few cases, such as Tyler, Teddy Roosevelt, Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and barely survived others, such as Andrew Johnson and Coolidge, and some would say Ford).

    Another advantage of regularly declaring, say, a 5 to 8 hour "disability" is that the VP would be more up to date on what's happening, avoiding a situation such as Truman taking office and then being SURPRISED with the fact that a nuclear weapon was being developed.

    My examples are of American leaders, but readers in other nations may know of similar stories.
    • They're paid salaries

      And heads of state and other senior government officials have to be available at a moment's notice to deal with emergencies in a timely fashion. I think that would have to be also true of any head of state that's not a pure figurehead, not just those who exercise political leadership or who actually manage the day to day affairs of their governments.

      But those who get paid by the hour should be paid for being on call, just like firefighters are. And salaried working stiffs should get comp time for being on call.
      John L. Ries
  • If you're responsible for something

    and it breaks, I hope your people can get in touch with you.
    • Good Support Structure

      The key to this is to have a good support structure in place. By doing so, you can generally eliminate people needing to call.

      For example we now have an outside IT company that we can call 24/7. Yes, people can still contact me for the very few situations that the IT company cannot handle (and I do mean very few), but I was actually able to take a vacation without getting phone calls since we put this system in place.
  • Not that I disagree...

    Staying connected 24/7 is for the birds, but at the same time: sheesh, what a couple of rude, presumptuous and ungrateful clients. How busy you are or how you organize your time is no business of theirs as long as they're getting whatever they paid you for.
  • You live in Houston

    And you treat a trip to the Kemah Boardwalk as a vacation? ? For those unfamiliar with Houston Kemah is essentially a suburb of a Houston. A fun place for the family but it isn't like you are heading out of town.