Why we need time to disconnect — and how leaders can (and should) make it happen.
Several countries have some form of "right to disconnect" law, and Ontario has just followed suit.
By Christine Laperriere
Do you regularly shut off your devices and “leave work”? Do you have specific and agreed-upon hours in which you are no longer “on-call” for answers to work questions? Are you thankful you are not working 24/7 these days like others you know? If you couldn’t answer yes to at least one of these questions, you might need the right to disconnect.
It appears that before the pandemic, many of us were overwhelmed with the demands of work. I was so frustrated with this problem, I chose to write, in my spare time, a book entitled Too Busy to Be Happy. Thousands of people worldwide bought it, and many admitted that it was the book’s title that caught their attention. It was like I had identified a feeling that so many people had but couldn’t articulate. Ironically, some who have bought my book are — wait for it — too busy to read it.
Then came the pandemic — which forced hundreds of thousands of knowledge workers (a clever new name for office workers) into their homes, stuck behind their computers for hours on end. This had another massive impact on the way people worked.
When knowledge workers shifted to work-from-home, you could encapsulate the new phenomenon that developed in one catchphrase: “If I’m awake, I’m working.” Many employees were not accustomed to working from home and wanted to let their bosses know they were indeed working, so they fought to respond to email and text messages as quickly as possible (i.e. what I like to call digital facetime). With that, serious challenges started to arise:
- People did not get more productive. Although people felt they were “always on,” they didn’t have dedicated time to focus and accomplish more significant tasks because meetings filled their days. Any significant blocks of time were fractured. High-value tasks were constantly being stopped and started again, as people often urgently responded to non-urgent texts and emails.
- People extended their workday. I noticed that many people I work with started to do “high-focus work” in the evening or late at night because this became the critical time they were not meeting or responding to daily information, and they can finally focus without interruption.
- People felt more pressure to work around the clock. As more people started tackling mission-critical work in the evenings, those who were not online started to feel like maybe they should be. As some played late-night catch-up, other well-intended employees felt like maybe this was the expectation. I don’t blame those who posted late-hour work—they wanted people to know how hard they were working!
- People stopped fully disconnecting. Ironically, many well-intended team members would see things coming in after hours and they’d opt to send a quick answer or acknowledgement. Who wants to look like one of the “slackers” who are busy eating dinner with their families or hitting their home gym for the 410th time?
- People burnt out. This never-ending cycle of work mixed with a global pandemic was the recipe for depression and a deep level of anxiety.
When I challenge my coaching clients to designate specific times to disconnect, they often say that they find that challenging because of the lack of alignment with those committed to digital facetime — sending messages and emails at all hours of the day. Given that most people can’t complete their full workload these days and constantly run behind schedule, they at least want to give their organization the impression that they are doing their best.
Here are a few solutions I’ve been challenging companies to implement:
- Designate company-wide blackout hours, where no one is expected or required to be online or working (i.e. 8 pm – 8 am).
- Allow employees to clarify their blackout hours themselves (i.e. an employee who works from 7 a.m. – 4 p.m. could dedicate 4 p.m. – 8 p.m. as their “disconnect” hours.)
- Designate meeting-free blocks of time during the work week dedicated to getting big assignments done. For example, Tuesday is meeting free or no meetings from 3 p.m. – 5 p.m.
Why is it important to make this a cultural concept versus letting everyone manage this independently?
- We need to remember the power of culture — people subconsciously mirror one another. Therefore, when we work in an environment where people work around the clock, even if we implement healthy boundaries—by nature—we feel either guilty or disconnected from the team in our efforts to uphold those boundaries.
- Unspoken permission is a thing. I have noticed that culture can be powerful in setting up what feels like unspoken permission to do or say specific things. Setting the precedent that encourages people to disconnect each day—even if they choose to take a different path—will eliminate the unnecessary guilt and resentment when they choose to take a much needed break.
- Life is short. In the last twenty months, many of us have lost or lost time with loved ones. People have been acutely aware that our time on earth is finite. And with that, many have come to enjoy regular family dinners, skipping rush hour, growing a herb garden, and seeing that even weekdays deserve moments of enjoyment.
Whether or not you’re in Ontario — a province that has just passed the “right to disconnect” — I encourage you to take the lead. Spot those hours when you will disconnect from work and be present with your friends, family, or yourself. Block out times in your day to focus on what matters at work and unhook from the need to respond to pointless emails and text messages. Last but not least, give yourself permission to enjoy any newfound peace and freedom these practices create.