Managing Email for Work-Life Balance

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We caught up with WCA member Maura Thomas, who is a TEDx speaker and published expert on attention management, productivity, and work-life balance. As we explore work-life balance this month, she shared an article she wrote, which originally appeared in the Harvard Business Review.

Our dysfunctional relationship with work email has become so normal, I’m not sure most of us can even see it anymore. Typical is this quote from the recent article, “How Successful People Spend Their Weekends”:

“I never go into the office on weekends,” Spencer says, “but I do check e-mail at night. [Emphasis added.] My weekends are an important time to unplug from the day-to-day and get a chance to think more deeply about my company and my industry. Weekends are a great chance to reflect and be more introspective about bigger issues.”

I don’t think he’s getting the “break” he thinks he’s getting. It’s incongruent to say, “My weekends are an important time to unplug,” while admitting he’s still checking email at least twice on the weekends.

And not even vacations are sacrosanct. Here’s another common piece of advice from a different article:

“Put away your devices while you’re on vacation. Designate a couple of consistent times per day, so your team knows when you will be checking in.”

So, in short, put away your devices while you’re on vacation, until you take them out again multiple times a day so that you can work, and apparently vacation activities will need to be scheduled around work check-ins!

Make no mistake: comments like these show how entrenched always-on work cultures have become. Researchers now call it “telepressure,” and define it as, “an urge to quickly respond to emails, texts and voicemails – regardless of whatever else is happening or whether one is even ‘at work.’” And such always-on cultures actually sabotage productivity. The research has shown that more downtime correlates to more benefits. Overworked, stressed-out, fearful employees will not be a good source of creative ideas. In this summaryof studies for Innovation Management, a Swedish consultancy company, Gaia Grant, author of Who Killed Creativity…and How Can We Get it Back?, writes, “Creative thinking requires a relaxed state, the ability to think through options at a slow pace and the openness to explore different alternatives without fear.” And according to Jen Spencer, founder of The Creative Executive, “play” is an important component in creativity, and if all people do is work, they’re crowding out “play times” that are important to generating innovative ideas. “When we balance work with play, it’s like cross-training our minds and our soul. Play is about enjoyment, relaxation, and recreation, which gives our minds the ability to replenish the resources we need to be strategic, make new connections, and innovate.” Put another way, telepressure and innovation cannot coexist.

The way for both leaders and employees to manage this issue is to recognize this, and also realize that we – each of us — have the final say in what is acceptable.

What Leaders Can Do

If you’re a leader in your organization, your actions influence the culture. If you choose to refrain from sending late-night emails, your employees won’t feel pressured to check their devices.

In addition to keeping their own behaviors in check, another way for leaders to correct this problem is to have a frank discussion about what’s expected of employees. If this discussion leads to the conclusion that constant availability is required to meet the goals of the organization, that’s a corporate issue that needs to be addressed. This may be an acceptable short-term situation, but it’s not sustainable long term.

If the discussion leads to the conclusion that it’s up to employees to set their own boundaries and impose their own limits, then leadership must ensure that the employees have the skills and the tools to do this successfully. Effectively managing all the details of life and work is not a skill taught in schools, and as technology and communication channels proliferate, it’s getting harder and harder. Traditional time management training doesn’t work, so staff development plans need to take these needs into account.

What Employees Can Do

You don’t need to be a leader in your organization to have influence over your downtime. The fact is, your industry shouldn’t dictate your work hours—your goals should. Not everyone aspires to be President of the United States, or even president of the company.

Now, if that type of career path is the one you choose, it’s important to take an honest look at the sacrifices that might be required, and ensure that your personal goals don’t conflict with your professional goals. It may help to realize how you define success: If you work incessantly and meet your professional goals, but you’ve done so at the expense of your personal life, your family, or your mental or physical health…is that the kind of “success” you aspire to?

It may be true that you can’t get to be a Hillary Clinton without working around the clock. But it’s not true that you have to sacrifice your personal life, your health, and your sanity to be successful at a technology consulting company, or a chip manufacturer, or a fashion retailer, or most other industries, despite the pace the job may seem to require.

There are successful entrepreneurs who prove that balance is still possible while growing a business, and others who have proven that while around-the-clock work hours seems necessary in some industries, even there it’s actually only the illusion of working around the clock that’s important.

Question your assumptions about being always available. Naturally, it’s human nature to operate based on assumptions­—sometimes assumptions we don’t even realize we’re holding. For example, if everyone at your organization seems to be keeping long hours, you might find yourself doing the same, based on the vague belief that if everyone is doing it, you must “have to.” But there is certainly no hard evidence to support the idea that those who are the most available or work the longest hours are the most successful. Has anyone ever been fired for not responding to emails at 2am? And even in an environment where that may be possible, you still have a choice.

Most leaders know the work is demanding, but depend on employees to be able to impose their own balance. My CEO clients tell me that they expect their employees to understand that regardless of how many hours they work, there will always be more work to do, and the employee is the only one who can set his or her own boundaries.

To be more productive and efficient is to make the best use of the resources available to you. In your quest toward productivity, for yourself or your company, don’t neglect the most important resources, which are neither time nor money, but body and mind. When your work precludes physical and emotional well-being, your pursuit of productivity will be destined to fail. And if conventional wisdom now says that constant work is necessary for professional success, I can’t think of a more important time to buck convention.

About Jennifer Van Gilder

A marketing research and health communications professional passionate about doing work that changes lives for the better. Adept team leader able to develop and execute integrated, multichannel public awareness campaigns and community-based solutions.

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