Should something be done about the ‘always on’ workplace?

In today’s business world the working hours are longer and demands are greater than ever before.

There is a culture of “busyness” and the expectation of availability outside of normal work hours.

This expectation to always prioritize work and to always be “on” is a daunting prospect and can erode your passion for your work, as well as impact everything from self esteem to family time.

Erin Reid, a professor at the Questrom School of Business at Boston University, and Lakshmi Ramarajan, a Harvard Business School assistant professor, have done some interesting research on today’s high-intensity workplace.

Reid refers to the phenomenon as “Cult of Busy,” and says – “Our research shows that being always available is actually dysfunctional for everyone at some level. Yet, many workplaces encourage workers to always have their electronic devices to hand, even on weekends, to address work-related calls and emails in real-time. Those who are unable or unwilling are often subtly penalized. This setting of boundaries is often seen as a sign of unsuitability for the job.”

Such a work culture is damaging not only to workers, but also to companies. These companies often see higher turnover rates as employees burn out and move on.

This obsession, willing or not, is unhealthy, and people have developed a few different ways of adapting to the 24/7 expectation. Here are the most common ways, along with their consequences.


Accepting

Many simply give in and accept that they must be available to work 24/7 as part of their job.

However, conforming to the “always on” mentality is detrimental to our sense of self.

When you prioritize your work to the exclusion of nearly everything else (family, friends, leisure pursuits), as companies want the ideal worker to do, you are shutting out many of the aspects that make you a fulfilled/balanced individual.

It also increases the rate of burnout, while decreasing your ability to handle setbacks like job loss, illness, etc. because you have psychologically put all your eggs into one basket.


Passing

This term was originally coined by sociologist Erving Goffman, who used it to describe how people hide personal characteristics which would otherwise subject them to stigmatization or discrimination, such as disability or race.

In this case, it is used for workers who pretend to be “always on,” but pursue outside interests under the radar of colleagues. Basically, workers “fake it” so they can “make it.”

This isn’t ideal either.

Hiding oneself in this manner takes a psychological toll. Having to lie to colleagues, management, etc. to conceal outside activities and portray oneself as working more than one actually does, lends itself to feelings of in-authenticity and disengagement from colleagues and the organization.

It can also mean high turnover for companies. Passers do not actively challenge the concept of the ideal worker who gives their all to the company, and so they perpetuate the culture in the workplace – causing others to be judged on an ideal to which they do not themselves conform.


Revealing

These are people who do not conform.

They do not hide their lives outside of work, nor allow work to dominate their identities. They set limits and ask for concessions such as reduced schedules, time off, or flexible working conditions.

In today’s high-intensity workplaces, workers who ask for concessions are often seen as being less worthy of advancement. They are penalized, their careers stall, they are sanctioned for not conforming.

Revealers in management positions often do not encourage subordinates to challenge the culture because they know the consequences, having felt it themselves.


What can you do?

Reid and Ramarajan offer advice to managers to help break the cycle, such as developing their own identities, moving away from time-based rewards, and helping employees protect their personal lives.

An extra effort needs to be made to not shun reasonable work hours, vacations, and regular leave time. By easing the pressure to constantly be the ‘ideal’ worker, companies/managers will see an increase in employee creativity, resilience, and job satisfaction.

Employees themselves can work to change the culture within their companies by speaking up when colleagues judge each other on the expectation of being “always on.” However, don’t try and fight it alone. Make it a collective effort. Find allies within the company, such as bosses who don’t work weekends themselves and encourage realistic timelines and workloads.

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