It’s no secret that we all struggle to keep work neatly tucked between the hours of 9am and 5pm. And with the onset of smart phones and tablets, it has become increasingly difficult to unplug. Anytime I upgrade or replace my phone, the first thing I do is sync my work e-mail so I can check it anytime I desire. Unfortunately, my desire to constantly know what’s going on at work never goes away. It doesn’t matter if my toes are in the sand and I can feel the warmth of the sun on my face. The rising number of new e-mails in my inbox taunts me every time I look at my phone.
The problem is I am not alone.
A survey by Xobni, the creators of a Microsoft Outlook add-in that helps people more effectively manage their e-mail and business relationships, found that 72% of Americans regularly check e-mail outside of normal business hours—this includes vacations, weekends, sick days and even while in bed. The survey helps show that the 9-to-5 work day Dolly Parton crooned about in the 1980s no longer exists in America.
Phone Gazing After Hours: Why Do Employees Do it?
Workers feel compelled to check e-mail outside of work to keep up and advance in their careers. According to the Xobni survey, more than a quarter (27%) of Americans check e-mail outside of work because they feel that they are expected to provide quick responses, even outside of standard business hours, while 37% are afraid to go without checking their e-mail because they might miss something important.
Although we’ve answered the question of why, another question remains: Will there ever be a solution for e-mail overload? Sure, we can all individually make a conscious effort to unplug when we walk out the doors of our office buildings each day, but it’s going to take more than that to change the mindset that being available to our managers, coworkers and clients 24/7 is acceptable.
The Burnout Factor: Keeping It—and E-mail Overload—in Check
As burnout becomes a buzzword due to an increase in work-related psychological illnesses, companies have been forced to have the burnout conversation and rethink the demands they make on employees.
“The more work encroaches on people’s private lives, the more employees are likely to suffer from stress, burnout and an inability to switch off,” the German Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, BAuA, found in a recent report.
France is one of the first countries to start the burnout conversation by directly addressing e-mail overload. Earlier this year, they introduced a deal to protect more than 250,000 employees from work e-mail outside of office hours. The deal signed between employers’ federations and unions says that employees will have to switch off work phones and avoid looking at work e-mail after 6pm. The firms are also not allowed to pressure staff to check messages outside of work hours.
The issue with the deal in France is that there are a lot of exceptions making it difficult to enforce, which brings us to German auto giant Volkswagen. They took the conversation of e-mail overload a step further. Volkswagen’s servers no longer forward e-mails to employees’ work phones between 6:15pm and 7:00am. Although this measure originally started with 1,000 white-collar employees, Volkswagen has since increased those affected to around 5,000 staff members.
The Discipline of Unplugging
Unfortunately the United States hasn’t seemed to join the conversation yet—burnout and specifically e-mail overload continue to be an issue. This means the onus is on us as individuals. In order to get the conversation started, we each need to learn how to unplug from work, especially e-mail.
It may seem like a daunting task to put down that cell phone on a Saturday and walk away worry free, but I promise that with practice it gets easier. Here are a few tactics I use to stay unplugged on weekends and vacations.
- Move the e-mail icon from the home screen to the last page of your apps. This allows you to look at your phone without seeing your new e-mail number multiply by the minute.
- Remove all e-mail notifications from your phone. The less your phone vibrates, beeps, pings, sings or lights up, the less temptation there is to look at “just a few” e-mails.
- Leave your phone at home. I realize it sounds crazy to leave a phone behind, but it’s incredibly refreshing. Without it, you are able to live completely in the moment.
- When you get home from work, put your phone in a drawer and leave it there. Don’t peek at it or put your ear up to the drawer to see if you hear anything. Just put it in there, walk away and feel the stress melt away.
At the end of the day, it’s your choice to unplug or not. So the next time you’re out to dinner, at a baseball game or sitting with your toes in the sand—try your best to resist the temptation of a buzzing phone. This is your time. Enjoy it.