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February 25, 2020

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Right-to-Disconnect Policies Could Help Talent Reconnect with Their Work

Billions around the world ushered in 2017 last weekend. And with New Year’s Eve celebrations, a slew of well-meaning resolutions follow. People vow to reach their fitness goals, finish lingering projects, learn new things, see the world and spend more time with friends and loved ones. The momentum toward fostering greater levels of work-life balance continues to grow. Flexible, family oriented HR initiatives and remote working arrangements are cropping up in response to the need. However, studies still demonstrate that incidents of stress, fatigue and burnout are soaring. With all the efforts to help people keep their social resolutions, Quartz magazine posed the million-dollar question: Why are we still so stressed out? The answer seems to be work culture, and a new model in France may inspire American employers to keep their talent healthier, more productive and dedicated to the mission.

Overly Connected in the Connected Age

Mobile technologies, on-demand communications and the digital era have vastly improved the ways in which we interact and accomplish tasks. However, they have also given rise to the notion that everything -- and every worker -- should be accessible at all times. Beyond optimizing process efficiencies, we may inadvertently have created a high-stress, adrenaline-fueled business culture where the line between professional and private life has blurred.

The Quartz article offers several examples of people pushing through long shifts on a regular basis, something one non-profit called “hero hours.” Talent in those environments would come to work on Monday mornings discussing the relief of weekends filled with chores. While that seems an odd thing to find relaxing, Quartz noted that those tasks had distinct endings. Conversely, the duties of employees’ day jobs did not.

“Overwork is not new in this country,” Quartz wrote, quoting David Waldman, vice president for human resources at RWJF. ”But in some ways, it seems like it’s hitting critical mass.” The effects of overworking, even when voluntary or inspired by a sense of higher purpose, can be devastating.

Research has shown that long work hours are associated with increased risks for hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and depression. One longitudinal study found that men who don’t take vacations are 30 percent more likely to have heart attacks. For women, that increased risk goes up to 50%. Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, and his colleagues found in a meta-analysis of 228 studies that work-life conflict is worse for one’s health than second-hand smoke, and that overwork increases the risk of death by 20%.

There’s an even more insidious issue with exhaustive work: it saps our cognitive abilities. Behavioral scientists say that a deficit of downtime leads us to concentrate on the things and moments we lack. Whether we’re preoccupied with earning more money or struggling to maintain relationships, the process taxes our “mental bandwidth.” One study determined that this strain can lead to a 13-point drop in IQ points.

The core issue, the researchers cited by Quartz said, was culture. Even in companies with flexible policies, talent remained subjected to endless meetings (virtual included), inboxes saturated with email, on-the-fly texts or online messages. They expressed a perceived need to stay connected, believing that was the only path to upward mobility.

A recent study published in Harvard Business Review found that even though a company may have flexible work or teleworking policies to promote work-life balance, an unspoken norm of valuing face time can keep workers from feeling they can use them without penalty. The study quotes one worker’s explanation:

There seems to be a norm that anyone hoping to move up in the management ranks needs to be here late at night and on the weekends. If you’re not willing to do that, you’re not going be seen as dedicated enough to get promoted.

Right to Disconnect: The French Connection

For 2017, France is taking bold steps to change the nature of the plugged-in work culture, which has spread globally. A new labor law gives workers in the country the “right to disconnect.” Beginning January 1, French employers must list specific hours when their talent will be exonerated from checking or responding to work emails, without repercussions.

As Erin Reimel writes in Glamour, “Basically, the country’s new law states that any company with more than 50 workers must add a charter to its code of conduct listing certain hours when employees are not supposed to answer their work emails, presumably in the evenings and on weekends.”

Proponents of the policy believe it will help workers combat stress, burnout, sleep deprivation and personal problems stemming from strained relationships. Although talent leave the office each night after their shifts, French officials noticed that they never truly left work.

“There is some research that backs up the French government’s claims,” NPR explained. “A study out of the University of British Columbia found that participants who were assigned to check their email only three times a day were found to be less stressed than those who could check their emails continuously. Another study out of Colorado State University found that even the anticipatory stress of expecting after-hours emails might have a negative effect on our well-being.”

Part of what makes the program feasible is the French concept of time. In her Glamour article, Reimel cited a BBC interview with Linh Le, a partner at Elia Consulting in Paris, who shed more light on the differentiation: “Here in France we speak of the two types of time, as defined by the Greeks: chronos and keiros. Chronos is regular, divisible time. Keiros is unconscious time… creative time. Keiros is essential for productive thinking, and good employers know they need to protect it.”

So the 2017 disconnect law enforces this conceptual division. And it is crucial. Without free time, our workers do not explore their worlds. They don’t learn new skills, develop new methodologies or approaches, or have the inspiration to conceive innovative ideas to benefit the company. When one’s time is exclusively committed to a single role or task, which never seems to conclude, creativity cannot flourish. Ultimately, that risks hobbling the growth and competitiveness of any business.

The workforce must be dynamic. Without granting talent the “keiros” time to engage in hobbies, socialization, education or research, we are unwittingly promoting stasis. From that culture, we can expect nothing more than status quo performance.

Helping American Talent Disconnect to Reconnect

In the United States, work-related stress contributes to at least 120,000 deaths each year, accounting for $190 billion in U.S. healthcare costs. That’s why wellness programs have gained so much traction here in the States.

In August, we discussed the appeal of wearable technologies in the workplace. The introduction of this simple wellness initiative alone generated powerful improvements in terms of lower healthcare costs, fewer sick days and higher morale. Retention rates also rose. Other researchers discovered 8.5 percent increases in productivity and 3.5 percent spikes in morale, not to mention substantial cost savings for employers.

Still, the need to enforce downtime persists. American workers do not take vacations or time-off these days. They feel pressured to be online at all times. By adopting some measure of the French policy, we could reinvigorate our workforce and help it reach new heights of performance. Allowing them to disconnect could be the way to help them reconnect at work.

Unlike U.S. workers, employees in Europe enjoy 30 to 34 days of paid vacation, depending on the country. They also have weekly caps of between 30 and 40 hours. Overtime rarely occurs. In a current Time article, researchers found that countries with generous time-off policies and shorter workweeks (between 27 and 33 hours) topped the list of the most productive nations. Ranking the highest were Luxembourg, Ireland, Norway and Belgium. The secret in Europe is working smarter, not longer -- giving employees time to be part of society and bring their extramural discoveries back as fresh ideas for their employers.

Two important steps we can take right now are:

  • Encourage workers to use their accrued vacation time, or mandate that they do. Bank of America, for example, has such a policy. Employees are actually required to take time off.
  • Simply follow the French disconnect model and establish times when workers will not be required to respond to emails or messages. Incorporate that charter into company policy and educate talent on the new procedures.

Not only will these two easy steps increase productivity and morale, they will bolster your employment brand and entice skilled job seekers to explore opportunities with your business. Great recruitment marketing content is just another benefit.

Other Helpful Tips

Here are some other best practices for maintaining a strong functioning and strongly salubrious talent force.

  • Be the ears and advocates for your talent. Do not judge a worker’s personal tragedies or struggles subjectively. Listen to workers and take their needs seriously, without ranking one person’s trauma higher or lower than another’s. In a contingent workforce program, collaborate closely with staffing partners and MSPs: be receptive when the attempt to champion the needs of their talent by pushing for medical leave, time off or other assistance.
  • Walk the walk. Management teams and contingent workforce program managers can model healthy workplace behaviors by visibly taking breaks, weekends, holidays and vacations.
  • Maintain healthy work-life divisions by not regularly or unexpectedly demanding after-hours responses, unless those working hours have already been understood and agreed upon by the worker.
  • Create safe environments for worker discussions and strive to design a judgment-free business culture where the stigma of struggles is reduced -- and vulnerabilities are emphasized with, supported and overcome.

Political, economic and employment analysts all predict unprecedented and unexpected changes to shape 2017. With seismic shifts come the aftershocks of stress. This year, keeping your workforce healthy and motivated will influence the success or failure of business goals. And perhaps the best start down this path is to unplug for a moment, smell the roses, get a 360-degree view of things, and then come back to work renewed and reenergized. You may even want to consider implementing a simple and quick mindfulness program at the office, which you can learn about in our previous article on the topic.

Sunil Bagai
Sunil Bagai
Sunil is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, thought leader and influencer who is transforming the way companies think about and acquire talent. Blending vision, technology and business skills honed in the most innovative corporate environments, he has launched a new model for recruitment called Crowdstaffing which is being tapped successfully top global brands. Sunil is passionate about building a company that provides value to the complete staffing ecosystem including clients, candidates and recruiters.
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