Why We Have To Stop Being Available 24/7 — And How To Do It

It’s not just a myth. It can be done – but be prepared to check your FOMO at the door.

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work-life balance-closed sign

It scares me how my cellphone has completely upended the way I work and live. Within a couple years that little black mirror has irrevocably blurred the lines between the office and home. And to be honest, it’s tilted the balance distinctly in favour of work. In this, I’m not unusual. Linda Duxbury, a professor at the Sprott School of business at Carleton University who has studied work-life balance for more than 25 years, has found the average knowledge worker puts in at least seven extra hours of work at home a week and 57 per cent of us report high levels of stress. When I spoke to Duxbury, she painted a fairly dire picture of burnout and toxic work environments, but also stressed that with a bit of discipline, you can find a certain equilibrium.

In terms of work culture, does Canada have a work-life imbalance?

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Most organizations talk about balance, but the reality is we have a culture of work in Canada where we mistakenly equate hours at work and constant availability with dedication, engagement and increased productivity. It’s wonderful rhetoric, but 60 per cent of 25,000 Canadians I surveyed in 2013 said “we agree that the way to get ahead in my company is to be available 24/7.” If you want to be available 24/7, you just aren’t going to have balance.

Is it our own fault? If we want to do a good job, when a work email comes in on the weekend, sometimes it’s easier to reply, or if a project needs more work, to put in extra hours.

I hear that a lot. And I mostly hear it from executives who are trying to justify sending emails at all hours. There is an aspect of self-monitoring, but I also see that there are a lot more instances of toxic organizational cultures than instances of it being an employee’s fault for wanting to do a good job. If there’s a crisis or a deliverable that you’re really keen on, then sure you can work 50, 60 hours for one week, two weeks, maybe even three weeks. But if you have no lull in your work, where you can focus on your family and your life, it can become very problematic in terms of health — mental health in particular. Organizations, in my opinion, are exploiting labour-market situations.

How then should we respond?

If the company is sending you emails in the evening and you answer, you’re confirming that you’re checking. You’re reinforcing that behaviour. I do a lot of studies on the impact of email, and right now we’re looking at the idea of urgency versus importance. Email increases the sense of urgency but not the real absolute importance to a task.

Is the answer to block off time at home?

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When we talk about work-life balance, we talk about people who have a segmented approach versus people who are integrated. Segmenters keep things separate. Integraters believe the boundary between work and family is fluid. With integraters, though, work tends to come home but family doesn’t really go into work. And most of the research says segmenters balance things a lot better — you’re only fooling yourself if you think your family is not noticing when you are on your smartphone answering emails.

What do you do to achieve balance?

Family time is pretty sacrosanct. I never answer the phone in any way, shape or form for a two-hour window around dinnertime. When I’m on vacation, I don’t answer email. No exceptions. My out-of-office reply says I won’t be answering email; gives numbers to contact; and states that if it’s important please re-send after this date, otherwise be aware I plan to delete my in-basket upon my return. And I do that. Unless there is a really good exception I never work on Saturday or any time on Sunday until Sunday night. But every day is not balanced.

Can we change this culture of work?

More and more employers are getting worried about the culture. The problem is a lot of organizations don’t pro-actively make changes until it’s urgent — when everybody starts burning out. In my research, I’ve found a lot of people don’t seek promotions because of work-life balance. They say “I’m already working flat-out, I can’t be available 24/7, which is what is expected for a manager.” But as we get more and more into talent shortages and succession-planning issues, balance is going to have to be addressed if we want to get good people to throw their hats into the ring.

Kathryn Hayward is a fortysomething senior editor at Today’s Parent, and a mom of two.