The ‘work creep’ and 24/7 availability putting health at risk

The ‘work creep’ and 24/7 availability putting health at risk

As the season rolls in for out-of-office autoresponders to be turned on, new research released today shares just what the temptation, or expectation, to keep checking your email and other digital work communications might be doing to your health.

The survey of 2200 academics and professionals across 40 universities in Australia found that those who did respond to digital work communications out of hours were more likely to suffer from psychological distress and poor physical health.

Lead researcher Dr Amy Zadow, from the University of South Australia, said the risk of such distress and ill health is ramping up, as employees feel the pressure of expectations to be constantly available, especially given the blurring of work boundaries as a result of the pandemic.

“Since COVID-19, the digitisation of work has really skyrocketed, blurring boundaries, and paving the path for people to be contactable at all hours,” she said.

But being always “on”, she said, means workers don’t have the opportunity to actually recover, which is essential for avoiding burnout. And they will miss vital opportunities to exercise and connect with family and friends.

More than a quarter (26%) of those surveyed said they felt they had to respond to work-related texts, calls and emails from supervisors during their leisure time. More than half (57%) said they had sent digital communications to colleagues in the evening. And 36% said that in their organisation, it was the norm to respond immediately to digital communication.

Meanwhile, those who did feel expected to respond to after-hours communications on the weekends were found to experience higher levels of psychological distress (56% compared with 42%) and emotional exhaustion (61% compared with 42%), as well as poor physical health (28% compared with 10%).

The research highlights the power and necessity of boundaries. Those that do have such boundaries are experiencing less stress and pressure as a result.

But, sadly, not all employees will have the power and autonomy to establish the boundaries they need, with organisations and employers continually expecting more from staff.

Professor Kurt Lushington from the University of South Australia says that managing out-of-office communications can be tough for employees, but ultimately their employers “do have the power to discourage ‘work creep’.”

He recommends establishing policies and practices to protect psychological health and develop a psychosocial safety culture that limits out-of-hours communication. At a broader scale, he notes this work is being considered within National Employment Standards, as well as in various Enterprise Bargaining Agreements.

Ultimately, employers and managers must understand how to measure work demand, so as to reduce the risk of ‘work creep’.

“At the end of the work day everyone should have the right to disconnect,” he said.

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