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Establishing Boundaries in an Always-on Culture

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

by: Elaine Magbag

PVP is proud to open The Insight Story space to one of our pioneering members who has since finished her masters in Organisational Psychology in London.

The way we work has been revolutionized since the early 2000s through the development of communication technologies. Companies are now heavily relying on email and messaging applications like Skype, WhatsApp, and Viber as their main medium of communication which has paved the way for various forms of flexible working arrangements such as telecommuting and working from home schemes. Working from home has been more salient as the COVID-19 pandemic forced many organizations to shift virtually. With the physical barriers of an office stripped away from millions of employees which separate their work and non-work lives, how could people cope and have better well-being?

The new age of working

More and more people are getting accustomed to a certain level of portability at work, whether you are in a café sipping a cup of coffee or beachside enjoying the sun; you can draft reports or answer emails from anywhere in the world as long as you have a wireless internet connection. Studies found that this level of empowerment, flexibility, and control helped employees balance their work and non-work lives, as well as improve employee outputs through multitasking. In fact, a significant number of people still check their work messages even if they are on vacation (44%) or are sick (54%) according to a study in 2013. Indeed, technology thrust us to a flexible style of working but this study also revealed that because of these communication technologies, employees feel that they have increased workload that constantly preoccupies and hinders them from taking breaks leading to an ‘always-on’ culture.

What is an ‘always-on’ culture?

The always-on culture is characterized by people having difficulty in switching off their devices, making themselves constantly available and reachable to clients and colleagues. This is problematic because prolonged exposure to the always-on culture perpetuates the blurring of boundaries between one’s work and non-work life which can have great implications on a person’s health and performance. Examining this effect, I conducted a study based in the Philippines in the midst of 2020. The study surveyed 217 employees in the National Capital Region who were able to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Two outcomes were alarmingly significant, the burnout people felt and the inability of people to detach psychologically from work.

I am highlighting these two outcomes because burnout is becoming an increasingly common phenomenon in organizations and has been recently recognized by the World Health Organization as a syndrome to chronic workplace stress back in 2019. Burnout is often defined as having three dimensions:

  • Distancing or cynicism towards one’s job

  • Decrease in one’s perceived competence and achievement from work

  • Exhaustion or depletion of energy

People may think that burnout is an individual-level concern, but it directly impacts the whole of the organization because numerous studies have found that burnout leads to lower job involvement, poor performance, absenteeism, and turnover. According to the data that I gathered, an alarming 35% of those surveyed are in danger signs of burnout while 28% are already experiencing burnout.

Figure 1: Burnout Classification in NCR

The other outcome is psychologically detaching from work which means you distance or “switch off” from any work-related activities during non-work hours. Detaching from work is a type of recovery experience widely and strongly linked to well-being. Researchers emphasize the need for people to get into the habit of switching off because long-term poor detachment from work is known to have negative outcomes such as lower life satisfaction, poor sleep quality, and even depression.

What can we do?

Technology will continue to progress and working from home seems to be the norm for the foreseeable future. So, what can be done to prevent burnout and increase the ability to switch off? A prominent way that has been well-researched by academics is the use of boundary management strategies. Boundary management strategies simply mean that you perform the different roles in your life from a continuum of segmentation and integration. Segmentors typically avoid any overlap in their roles for work and family by setting a distinct time and space. The opposite can be said for the integrators wherein they are comfortable with quickly switching between their work and family roles regardless of time and space. While each person would have their preferences in managing their boundaries, there is a critical element that most people and organizations fail to acknowledge which is the element of control a person has in enacting their preferred boundary management strategy. A classic example would be those working in the field of consultancy or advertising who often work around the client’s needs and demands ultimately increasing the pressure of constant availability. These people are then enforced to manage their work and non-work roles based on someone else’s terms. The study that I conducted showed that control regarding one’s boundaries was significantly essential in limiting the feelings of burnout. Additionally, employees who felt they had more control over their boundaries were able to switch off thoughts from work after-hours.

The role of organizations

Individuals should practice habitually switching off mentally and psychologically during non-work hours, however, organizations should also play an active role in pursuing and establishing a working environment that promotes the employees’ well-being. There is an argument that a truly flexible workplace is centered on the control employees have in enacting their boundaries, but this can be extremely challenging to translate into reality. A more feasible action organizations can do would be to have the managers and employees be transparent about their boundary expectations and availabilities. This way there is a mutual agreement that benefits both parties and creates a healthier work dynamic.

Other actions organizations can look into are creating norms or rules introducing availability policies, encouraging employees to disconnect, and respecting other people’s time and space away from work. A simple policy such as no emails or business-related messages to be sent and answered after official business hours can be a small start. After all, organizational practices help define organizational culture.

Taking care of employees is key

A key takeaway is not only should organizations learn to acknowledge that people have different preferences in managing the boundaries of their work and family lives, but they should also feel that they have control over how they set these boundaries. More control can lead to lower risks of burnout and better detachment from work. Progressive organizations invest to have healthy, happy, and well-engaged employees because it will always translate to their bottom line. There are numerous ways of preventing burnout and encouraging employees to switch off mentally outside of work hours however managers and organizations should be cautious against a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution because its effectiveness and scope may vary depending on the context.

Elaine Magbag is a researcher and consultant in organizational development and communications by day and a wine lover by night. She earned her MSc in Organisational Psychology from Birkbeck, University of London, fueled by her passion in understanding human behavior and data analytics

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