The itch to clear a few work emails before bed is likely an urge felt by many. Digital technology has increasingly allowed people to work anywhere, anytime.

Flexible working has its perks, certainly. For parents juggling child care or for people who live far from the office, the ability to work from home or to work flexible hours is a godsend.

But it also has its downsides, Victoria University’s Alex Beattie pointed out at a panel discussion on Wellbeing in the Workplace, hosted this week in Wellington by Health Central ChalkTalks.

“The risk is with flexible working that we never stop working and I think we’re just starting to understand the costs of that now,” said Beattie.

Indeed, there is growing evidence that long working hours are contributors for stress, fatigue and burn-out.

Clearer boundaries between work and home

Social media and wellbeing researcher Alex Beattie.

Beattie would like to see companies set clearer boundaries between work and home time.

“Certain countries are exploring this idea of the right to disconnect, not having to respond to work-related communication after hours, or email servers being shut down so they don’t have to respond.”

Beattie said such a policy is enshrined in law in France, and currently being debated in places such as New York, the Philippines and India. Here in New Zealand, Nelson City Council implemented a version of the right to disconnect in 2016. Beattie would like to see others follow suit.

“I would like to see all New Zealand businesses adopt ‘a right to disconnect’ as a wellbeing policy,” he said.

A right to disconnect would require businesses to negotiate with employees a written policy about the appropriate use of digital devices and other digital communications outside of normal working hours. The purpose of such a policy is to establish clearer boundaries between work and home and ensure any employee who does not respond to a work-related communication outside of normal working hours is not subjected to disciplinary action.

Beattie said evidence suggests clearer boundaries between work and home mean people are likely to be more productive at work.

This aligns with the rationale underpinning the four-day week, an initiative many companies around the world are considering. After trialling it for a year, Perpetual Guardian founder Andrew Barnes declared the four-day week a success, with studies revealing an increase in productivity, profits and staff retention, and a decrease in stress levels.

But how does the separation of work from home life fit with whole person management, the idea that we shouldn’t leave our personal lives at the door of the office?

Under whole person management we should feel comfortable to discuss with our boss and colleagues details of our lives outside work: our children’s successes, concerns about elderly parents, how the marathon training is going, and so on. The theory behind it is that by feeling valued as a person, and not just as an employee, people are more likely to achieve greater job satisfaction and consequently perform well at work.

The two faces of social media in the workplace

It could be argued that social media plays nicely into whole person management.

And Beattie acknowledged that social media can be incredibly empowering. Equally, it can be incredibly distracting, he said.

He believes organisations should support channels for workers to connect, and he doesn’t think they should monitor or restrict social media.

“The water cooler now belongs online,” he said.

Social media can also be a channel for abuse and bullying.

“Bullying in person can be awful; the difference with cyber bullying is that it’s captured in code and you can’t escape from that hurtful comment. That hurtful comment can then enter a different channel and then enter the home space and this awful memory of work can follow you home.”

Even so, Beattie still doesn’t support the idea of businesses monitoring social media use. Instead he reiterated the importance of creating clearer boundaries between work and home.

“With millennials making up more of the workforce cohort, and the next generation of digital natives just around the corner, it is critical that employers develop best practice understandings of the benefits and harms of ubiquitous connectivity at work.”

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