4 Sep 2023

The Perils of 24/7

The digital revolution has transformed our access to each other and, as we acquire ever more tablets, laptops, mobiles and wearable smartwatches, many of us feel permanently monitored, reachable and on-call. Technology has broken down the conventional barriers between work life and home life and opened the floodgate to an alarming new world of round-the-clock availability.

With limitless availability there comes an expectation that working round the clock, pulling all-nighters, responding to emails in the early hours of morning and calling colleagues at the weekend are all positive signs of extreme dedication and productivity. But scientists argue that the opposite is true: the more the barriers between work and play dissolve, the more our stress levels rise and the more liable we are to burn-out, exhaustion and poor performance. The relentless culture of 24/7 working is proving to be counterproductive. Workaholics beware…

Many people who claim they do not work around the clock operate instead in the twilight world of being “on call”. They may claim that they are not actually working at certain times of the day, but they are in fact poised and ready to leap into action as soon as they receive a notification on their phone, ready to troubleshoot if there is a midnight crisis, willing to drop whatever they’re doing and switch into professional mode. This half-life is probably the worst option of all because it means that they can never detach fully from work and do not experience the time when they are notionally away from work as being their own.

In addition, different time zones play havoc with workers’ schedules, as there is an expectation that they will make themselves available for conference calls and so on with colleagues who are based in different continents. Where once, communication between geographically distant colleagues would have been restricted to easily managed emails, video calls and conferences are now an option, and many people feel they must accommodate these requirements, even if it means staying up until after midnight or getting up at the crack of dawn.

Remote working has compounded these difficulties, as the divisions between home and work life are porous and workers may feel that they need to demonstrate endless availability to justify the comparative freedom and flexibility of working from home. But office workers are also not immune from this new plague. Even though their hours of work might be well-defined, there is frequently still an expectation that they are reachable “after hours”.

We all need to secure a healthy balance between our home and family life and our workaday world, so follow these recommendations to beat the 24/7 pressure:

•Set fixed work hours
It is always a good idea to set fixed work hours. This means deciding on your office hours and communicating them to the wider world. You could add them too your website and/or spell them out on your email footer. Making them clear will discourage out-of-hours calls. If you have international colleagues or clients, there will obviously be exceptions to these rules, but you can negotiate contact separately (and keep quiet about it).

•Don’t count the hours
You might find it helpful to move to a task-orientated working week (this is particularly applicable to remote workers). Instead of following the old-fashioned notion of “clocking in” to work, you should set yourself a number of weekly tasks that need to be completed. You may find that you complete your tasks in record time, in which case you will have more leisure. On other occasions you may find you have under-estimated, and you will need to put in some extra hours. But it is swings and roundabouts and probably evens out over time. In addition, if you adhere to this working practice, you will be able to enjoy a weekly sense of achievement.

•Schedule your week
Start each week by planning out the days in detail. That means going through each day on an hour-by-hour basis and allocating a time block for each task. It also means setting out periods of time when you’re not working, when you can enjoy family time, have lunch with friends, exercise etc. Build in some “contingency time” in case something unexpected crops up, which will ensure that you don’t impinge on your leisure time.  Adhere to your timetable.

•Learn to unplug
Smartphones are fatal because they keep us plugged in to the world of work and very few of us can resist the siren call of their notifications. Given that checking your phone every few minutes is an addiction for most of us, it is a good idea to give yourself the radical challenge of switching off the phone (or turning off notifications) for certain periods of the day. Think about when you least want to be on call – perhaps it’s the children’s bedtime, or when you’re cooking and eating dinner, or streaming movies in the evening – and make it a habit to unplug. Unless your job requires immediate responses (eg you’re a doctor on call or a duty solicitor), this strategy will not have earth-shattering consequences and will buy you a measure of peace and tranquillity.

•Consider others
Even if you’re a driven, 24/7 workaholic, who thinks nothing of sitting at your computer in the wee small hours or slaving away on a summer’s weekend, you need to think about other people before you make demands of them. As you reach for your phone or open your email, teach yourself to pause for a moment. Look at the clock: is it after 6pm or before 9am? These are usual working hours, (although of course some people choose earlier starts and later finishes) and should always be your default notion of when it is appropriate to call. If you have considered the time, but still judge that it is urgent to speak to a colleague after-hours, don’t take their time for granted. Start the call by acknowledging that you’re aware it’s late (or early) and apologise for the inconvenience.


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