Long hours, incessant emails and SMSes have started to take their toll on you. You struggle to sleep; you have become agitated and irritable with everyone around you. You feel yourself becoming disengaged and despondent at work. Your partner is threatening to leave you and you feel like your life is in a hopeless shambles. You are experiencing a typical condition caused by ongoing, high levels of stress, known as burnout, and technology could be part of your problem.
“For many people, the average workday doesn’t end when they leave the office. The onslaught of modern-day technology such as mobile phones, tablets and laptops, has made employees reachable at almost every hour of the day and night. These devices make it almost impossible for individuals to ‘switch off’, leading to high levels of stress, burnout, absenteeism, staff turnover, decreased productivity and various kinds of personal dysfunction,” says Dr Jacques Snyman, managing director of integrated care solutions at Agility, owners of the Zurreal4employers programme, an integrated and holistic human capital and risk management solution.
According to the 2013 CBI/Pfizer Fit for Purpose survey, workers in the United Kingdom took an average 5.3 days off work in 2012 with stress, anxiety and depression cited as the main reason for absence thereby costing the UK economy £14bn a year. “Stress and burnout in the workplace affects the physical and psychological well-being of the employee, which in turn has a huge impact on the bottom line of the business,” says Dr Snyman. When employees suffer from high levels of stress they become susceptible to health problems such as headaches, muscle tension, chest pain, fatigue, a change in sex drive and gastrointestinal problems. If left untreated, chronic levels of stress can even lead to or worsen heart disease, asthma, obesity, anorexia, diabetes, depression and anxiety, alzheimer’s disease and can even cause premature death.
The phenomenon known as burnout on the other hand is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion that is caused by excessive and prolonged stress. Burnout can impact every aspect of an individual’s life, leading to feelings of helplessness. It can cause insomnia and depression. Other symptoms of burnout include increased cynicism and negativity, deceased creativity, quickness to anger, defensiveness, edginess, detachment and loss of satisfaction or sense of accomplishment. Modern technology has been cited as such a big driver of burnout in the workplace that last year, labour unions and corporate representatives in France actually agreed to ban emails after hours to improve work-life balance. Other companies have followed suit by instituting ‘no email weekends’ and some have put protocols in place for reasonable response times to emails and work phone calls.
There is no doubt that technology has changed the way we work and makes life easier in many respects. Technology allows for flexibility and lets people juggle different roles and responsibilities at the same time. “I don’t think an all-out ban on emails after hours is really necessary,” admits Dr Snyman. “However, it is important to have boundaries when it comes to responding to emails or phone calls outside of work hours,” he asserts.
Here are some tips from Dr Snyman to avoid the ‘technological tipping point’:
- It is important to set expectations right from the beginning. For example, if you always respond to emails at midnight this might start becoming the norm. Remember that if it is really urgent, you will most likely receive a phone call.
- If you have special plans or are going to be away on holiday, let your boss know well ahead of time that you are going to be unavailable and will not be able to respond to emails.
- Employers should set an example for their employees by minimising communication between 7pm and 7am.
- Employers should also encourage or even insist that employees do not respond to emails on weekends and during holidays.
“Not maintaining a work/life balance and burning out is costly to both your health and your career. To avoid burnout, proactive steps need to be taken and time spent on technological devices must be carefully managed and controlled,” he concludes.