How does this impact our long-term performance and growth, as well as general wellbeing? And if current trends are not sustainable, who bears responsibility for change? We explore these questions in this conclusion to “Any time, any place, anywhere (Part 1)".

The most disturbing aspect of digital technology is what it is doing to our brains. In his influential 2010 book, The Shallows, Nicholas Carr draws on studies by psychologists and neuroscientists to argue that the constant distractions and diversions we experience online train our brains to work in a different way, and prevent us from understanding things in depth. “The net is designed to be an interruption system,” writes Carr. It’s “a machine geared to dividing attention”.

He argues that our intelligence hinges on our ability to transfer information from working memory to long-term memory, where we can use it to form conceptual models of the world around us. We need to do this because our working memory is tiny, and can only deal with a certain amount of input. “When the load exceeds our mind’s ability to store and process the information, we’re unable to retain the information or draw connections with the information already stored in our long-term memory. Our ability to learn suffers and our understanding remains shallow,” writes Carr.

So if present trends continue unchecked, we will end up with a workforce of sleep-deprived, distracted, depressed, stressed and not terribly productive zombies. Luckily, even the most miserly employers, who pay lip service to the concept of wellbeing, can find evidence that crazy working hours incur real, balance sheet costs.

Mindful intervention

The vogue for mindfulness and meditation reflects this concern, coming into fashion at a time when many of us find it all but impossible to “live in the here and now”. Google, having contemplated this dystopian future, was an early adopter of the philosophy as it sought a way to help staff step back and switch off.

More than 1,500 Google employees have taken its Search Inside Yourself course since 2007. It was the brainchild of the company’s Singapore-born engineer Chade-Meng Tan, who acquired an unusual job description: “Enlighten minds, open hearts, create world peace.” He’s accomplished two out of three — some staff testimonials are of the “this changed my life variety” — by framing Search Inside Yourself as a contemplative training programme that helps staff relate to themselves and others and deepens their emotional intelligence. As Tan said, “[t]he people I wanted to reach were those who would look at the course and say: ‘This is just hippie bullshit’.”

In the UK, telecoms giant O2 is grappling with the “always on” syndrome by introducing extensive flexible working practices: issuing staff with mobile phones (naturally) and laptops, and letting them choose where they want to work. “No employer — regardless of sector — can justify or afford to retain a workplace routine rigidly based on the 9-5 model,” says Ann Pickering, 02’s HR director. “The truth is, we are living through a digital revolution, with technology having fundamentally transformed the way we live and work.”

Yet O2 does strive to protect employees’ work-life balance. “We work hard to instil a trust-based culture across the entire organisation so our people don’t feel the need to be ‘always on’,” says Pickering. “It’s a culture led from the top down. We ensure that all of our leaders respect and understand that people have a life outside work.”

Another approach is to adopt “time outs”. Boston Consulting Group, for example, guarantees employees one email-free evening a week, while Northeast Topping, a healthcare consulting firm in Philadelphia, prohibits correspondence after 10pm and on weekends. In Wall Street, 24/7 became a default setting for working life until a number of junior bankers died from stress or working for days without sleep.

In response, several banks guaranteed staff a weekend off or banned overnight office work. Goldman Sachs ruled that interns could not work more than 17 hours a day — a policy that highlights how ridiculous the working norms in this sector had become. The problem with such measures is that one young banker died after four days “off” in Bermuda, which he spent mostly in his hotel room on his computer.

While many businesses are taking steps to address being “always on”, it’s evident that, for many, it is only scratching the surface of a deep-rooted problem. American health insurance firm Aetna has gone further, giving staff a sleep monitor and paying them $25 for every 20 nights they enjoy at least 7 hours of sleep. “You can get things done quicker if people are present and prepared,” said Mark Bertolini, Aetna chairman and CEO, in an interview with CNBC. “You can’t be prepared if you’re half-asleep.” For some though, this is too Orwellian, although not as Big Brother-ish as the growing number of apps that track staff out of office hours.

Onus on employers

The pressure on employers to do more is growing — particularly in France, Germany and Sweden, which is testing the idea that a 6-hour working day will make staff happier and more productive. French politicians are trying to give workers a legal right to disconnect outside working hours. Socialist MP Benoit Hamon told the BBC recently: “Employees physically leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash, like a dog. The texts, the messages, the emails… they colonise the life of the individual to the point where he or she eventually breaks down.”

French companies of more than 50 people are now obliged to draw up a charter of good conduct, setting out the hours — normally in the evening and at the weekend — when staff are not supposed to send or answer emails.

In Germany, it is has been illegal for managers to contact staff outside of work since 2013. Two years ago, car manufacturer Daimler installed software on its systems that gave 100,000 employees the option to have emails that arrive while they’re on holiday deleted automatically.

CIPD research advisor Ksenia Zheltoukhova says you can’t blame organisations for wanting to be flexible and productive: “They may feel they’re giving staff a voice by letting them work whenever they like. So it’s about understanding the extent to which people are truly free to choose their hours at work.”

“You have to consider the far-reaching consequences of how technology affects the workplace and consider to what extent ‘best practice’ really is best. You can’t just say that because other companies are doing it, we’ll do it too. It’s about making more conscious choices about how technology enters the workplace.”

Anthony Bruce, a partner at PwC, says the “always on” digital age requires a new employer-employee dialogue. “Can your boss expect you to respond to an email at 7pm? It’s a question that wasn’t asked 15 years ago, because you weren’t in the office and, even if you wanted to be, the door was locked.”

Ultimately, Bruce says, companies must decide why they want their staff to work — or not work — in a certain way. “There’s a real challenge for organisations to be clear about why they’re doing this. Some are recognising the opportunity this kind of innovative technology gives them. They’re listening and responding. Others will work people to the bone, and eventually, if the pay isn’t there, they will vote with their feet.”

Onus on employees

But will they? JPMorgan Chase is one US investment bank that has not laid down new policies to help staff achieve a work-life balance because, as CEO Jamie Dimon says: “You’ve got to take care of your mind, your body, your spirit, your soul, your health. JPMorgan can’t do it for you wherever you work.”

This might sound callous but Dimon has a point. Many of us are “always on” not because our boss tells us to but because we want to be. We may have supped too fully from Dolly Parton’s “cup of ambition”, be driven by a misguided sense of duty or — and this is an inconvenient truth that is rarely discussed — find our working lives less stressful than our private lives. Even if we’re not at work when we’re working, it can still be a haven where we feel in control.

On Wall Street, young bankers “relax” by playing a game called Misery Poker, where they brag about their workloads. As Kevin Roose, author of Young Money says: “It’s a badge of honour. In many cases, the severe culture is self-imposed.” That kind of behaviour is not going to be solved by changing a few rules — or even a lot of rules. Employers must do what they can to change cultures, norms and policies. Yet to switch off in an “always on” world requires individuals to recognise their responsibility, as Dimon put it, to their minds, bodies and souls.

This article was first published in the Autumn 2016 issue of the CIPD’s Work. magazine.

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