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Put Away Your Devices and Chill

October 3, 2017

“Available-ism” is threatening employee well-being, and necessitates periodically disengaging mentally from work

Imagine this scenario: Sandeep, let’s call him, works as a Product Development Specialist for a consumer products company. The job is fast paced, demanding and subject to tight deadlines, and because of this, he is always available to discuss ideas and problems with his team. Despite putting in long hours, when he leaves work, he always makes sure to check his e-mail — whether he’s at home watching TV or out with friends — he is never without his cell phone. In fact, Sandeep is never really away from work. He answers his cell phone in bed.

He’s available on weekends. He even checks his messages on vacation because he doesn’t want to miss out on urgent developments. Paradoxically, most of what he keeps up-to-date about isn’t particularly urgent or time sensitive. Regardless, Sandeep is always available. He suffers from “available-ism.”

Most recently, organizations have been concerned with presenteeism. This is when employees show up at work when they shouldn’t, like when they’re sick. Employees may be afraid they’ll suffer negative consequences if they are absent. For example, telecommuters and employees who enjoy flex time sometimes go to work unnecessarily because they’re afraid that if they’re not physically seen at the office they will suffer negative repercussions such as being passed over for promotions or receiving a smaller bonus.

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Employee availability is always a concern. With advances in technology this inclination to be present and available for work has taken an unprecedented turn. Today employees can be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. This level of availability, which used to be restricted to a small number of specialists, such as firefighters and obstetricians, is now commonplace. Although it may be good for business in the short run, it’s not good for people and damages organizations over the long haul.

A study on the ability of workers to recover from work over the weekend was published in the 2010 Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology by German researchers, Carmen Binneweis, Sabine Sonnentag and Eva J. Mojza. The study found that employee well-being requires periodically disengaging mentally from work. This ability to turn off is called psychological detachment. The study demonstrated that employees who psychologically detach on the weekend report feeling much more recovered on Monday. Equally important, the ability to psychologically detach promotes effectiveness. The state of feeling recovered at the start of the work week led to higher levels of job performance that week.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, employees who suffer from available-ism never psychologically detach. Technology gives us the option to be constantly connected to work, but we need to consider whether we should be. Both individuals and organizations should recognize the detrimental consequences of available-ism and take steps to promote psychologically disengaging. And this is not easy. A study by Google found that only 31% of Google employees were able to psychologically detach when away from the office.

There are a number of techniques you can use to avoid the trap of available-ism.

Three techniques to avoid available-ism:

  1. Turn off your devices. You could turn off the devices so you’re not tempted to check any work messaging at all. If being without your smart phone is like losing a limb, the most important technique is to simply not check your work inbox or text messages when you’re not at work. Ensure that you have separate emails for personal use and work, and turn work notifications off so that it is not continually “dinging” at you.
  2. Practice transition rituals. Use your travel time to and from work to brief and debrief yourself from your daily work activities. As Vera Asanin, President of Your Workplace once stated, “I do not enter my home until I have detached from work and am ready to be present with my family. I even
    have a hook outside the door to symbolically ‘hang up my armour’ before entering [my home].”
    It is important to develop a ritual to implement before or when you get home from the job which demarcates that work is now over and you can switch off. Brew a cup of tea, put on some music — do something that draws a line between work and non-work, and then don’t cross it.
  3. Trick yourself. A group of researchers from the University of Florida demonstrated how employees who spent time contemplating good things that happened to them during their day were more successful at detaching in the evening. Cited in a 2013 article in the Academy of Management Journal, this technique of trickery is based in solid principles of psychology. It will undoubtedly make you feel good too.

Back to our friend Sandeep. In the end, he would be a more productive employee, and a happier individual, if he could cut the cord and overcome his constant attachment to work. Available-ism is an ever growing pressure. Progressive organizations and insightful individuals must take steps to recognize the disadvantages of available-ism. Preventing burnout and keeping employees engaged has greater long-term benefits than getting immediate responses to non-pressing issues made possible by employees’ continuous availability.

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Jamie Gruman
Dr. Jamie Gruman is an Associate Professor of Organizational Behaviour. He has taught in the undergraduate program, MA Leadership Program, MBA program, and PhD program in Management at the University of Guelph. Dr. Gruman is the Founding Chair of the Canadian Positive Psychology Association. Dr. Gruman has consulted and delivered seminars for Fortune 500 corporations, public and not-for-profit agencies.

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