Business Columns & Blogs

Working 9 to 5? You must be kidding

Diane Stafford is the workplace columnist for The Kansas City Star.
Diane Stafford is the workplace columnist for The Kansas City Star.

Even if you have a regular full-time job, where you go to a work site for specific hours five days a week, you see the change. It’s not your father’s (or mother’s) workplace anymore.

Even if your alleged quitting time is 5 p.m., you’re likely among the half of American workers who say in surveys that they take work home and answer job-related emails and phone calls after hours.

Diffusely defined workdays don’t happen just because a boss shares late-night thoughts, or a company requires mandatory overtime, or a business needs round-the-clock staffing. Odd work hours also are a package deal with many contract, freelance or part-time positions, some of which are taken by choice.

In sum, the 24/7 workday is the new norm, maybe not for a particular individual but for the workplace as a whole. And that causes hand-wringing.

Consider a research paper to be presented in August at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management. The title tells the story: “Exhausted but Unable to Disconnect.” It’s not an entirely new story because years of polling and health research have shown that individual health, family time and work-life balance are imperiled by an always-on work culture.

This study, by researchers at Lehigh, Virginia Tech and Colorado State universities, focuses on the stress caused by the mere expectation that off-hour work will be requested.

The authors call it “anticipatory stress.” And they say it hurts workers’ abilities to detach from work, regardless of the time involved. In other words, even taking just a few seconds to respond to a quick email pushes people back into the work mode that’s difficult to shake.

Their academic take: “Even during the times when there are no actual emails to act upon, the mere norm of availability and the actual anticipation of work create a constant stressor that precludes an employee from work detachment.”

The professors acknowledge that it’s nearly impossible to ban after-hours connectivity, but they do tout a few companies that have imposed email-free nights, maybe once a week, or contact-free weekends. They cite Boston Consulting Group and The Huffington Post for setting forward-thinking limits.

Generally, far fewer American workers are able to say they honestly leave work behind or “forget about work” when they leave their workplaces. Again, that’s partly because at least one-third of current jobs are conducted during time set by workers themselves.

Freelancers or contract workers may not punch a set time clock; they may work toward a deadline, but where and how they get the job done is under their control. That doesn’t necessarily mean always-on stressors go away. It’s hard to shake thinking about doing work.

Now more than ever, workers need to hone the ability to draw their own work-life boundaries to make sure the life part still exists.

Diane Stafford is a columnist for The Kansas City Star. stafford@kcstar.com, 816-234-4359, @kcstarstafford,kansascity.com/workplace

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