Technology has given us greater opportunities to work remotely, but research shows we are less productive and more at risk of mental health problems when tethered to a mobile. To maintain the work-life balance, we must develop a strategy for switching off.
I have written a great deal about the importance of achieving a healthy work-life balance lately. An interesting article I read on how the mobile phone has revolutionised the way we work has made me think more about the concept of flexible working.
When does ‘flexible working’ become an impingement on home life?
There is no denying technology has given us greater opportunities to work remotely but, while we think we are working flexibly because we are doing so at the football pitch or at the airport, have we lost sight of what it should be about?
To me, flexible working is about not undertaking work when you should be engaged in another non-work-related activity. Flexible working is about shifting around your day to make other things fit in. The trouble is, technology means those worlds can collide. Some of us just aren’t that good at compartmentalising the different parts of our life.
I was interested to see some Twitter discussion in September about whether or not it is right to work on holiday. Again, technology gives us possibilities, but it also gives us headaches: I can look, but should I? Will there be problems if I don’t? Can I ever fully switch off, knowing I can access everything at any time?
People running their own businesses are prone to burnout because of the belief they have to be connected 24/7. There is a fear that the biggest and best opportunity will come at precisely the moment they have decided to go off the radar.
There is a glimmer of hope that people are getting better at switching off on holiday. Take this tweet: “I have seen more ‘out of office’ responses this year than I can remember, saying people will be ‘unavailable when they are away’. This is a huge step-change and massive progress. It gives me renewed hope that there is life away from our jobs and smartphones!”
However, responses to the tweet showed many people still battling with their work ethic: “You’re right, it is really tough, particularly when you’re as service orientated as I am. It is also a trade-off between coming back to a managed inbox, versus one that takes a week to catch up on. I will try harder on the next one.”
Here are a few practical steps we can take to feel more comfortable about leaving the work at home.
1. Tell people you are out of reach
Inform everyone about your plan. Be clear about the dates you will be unavailable and the back-up plan if something crops up.
2. Have a back-up plan
Have arrangements in place for emergencies. Giving an alternative number on which you can be contacted and having someone check your email are ideal. If the latter is not feasible, make sure your out-of-office has the alternative number and explains there might be a delay in responding. If possible, add the details of someone in your team who will be able to deal with enquiries. Anyone who does email will then think twice about how urgent it is before calling.
3. Get a “dumbphone”
If leaving your phone behind is not an option, swap your Sim into a ‘dumbphone’ with no internet. You will be able to make and receive calls but will not be able to go online.
4. Remove work emails from your phone
If there is a crisis or golden opportunity and you have laid your back-up plans carefully, you will be contactable. So you do not need to be on email, right?
5. Switch off your notifications
If you must have your mobile with you, go through every app and switch off all push notifications. It will cut down on the number of times you check it and give you some breathing space.
6. Designate device-free zones
Set aside times and places when you will be phone-free. Leave it behind during meal times, or go out for the day without it. Or limit the time you check it to, say, only after breakfast or not after 7pm.
It is hardly surprising that research shows we are less productive when constantly tethered to our phones. We should be giving ourselves the mental space needed to tackle the bigger challenges we face.
What’s more, further research has found that excessive use of phones could be leading to greater incidences of depression and anxiety. A 2016 study, entitled Fear of Missing Out, Need for Touch, Anxiety and Depression are Related to Problematic Smartphone Use, saw students answer a questionnaire assessing their mental health, mobile phone and internet usage, and the reasons behind their usage.
People who scored higher on scales known as “fear of missing out” and “need for touch” were more likely to overuse their phones. Those who overused their phones were more likely to score higher on the depression and anxiety scales.
This was because problematic smartphone use “may interfere with other pleasurable activities and disrupt social activities, thereby reducing behavioural activation and subsequently increasing depression”.
A careful rethink of your downtime might be overdue. There is certainly evidence out there of the success of the switch-off mentality.
Clare Jupp is director of people development at Brightstar