This is the phenomenon of ‘reverse presenteeism’: instead of being in the office and not working, people are at home and working out of hours.
When the feeling of social and status recognition is less direct and less frequent, we end up craving it even more. But those who send out-of-hours messages often don’t realise the effect it’s having. Research by London Business School PhD candidate Laura Giurge, published in Harvard Business Review recently, showed how the senders of such messages consistently underestimate how compelled receivers feel to reply right away – even if the message isn’t urgent.
Initiatives to help employees carve out clearer boundaries
- Employees at Hedgehog Lab, a digital product agency, are encouraged to change their Slack status emoji when having lunch, exercising or walking the dog during the working day.
- Wieden + Kennedy London, an advertising agency, trialled asking people not to email between 7pm and 8am.
- Jimmy Etheredge, the CEO of Accenture in the U.S., recently issued a rallying cry for people to “take back lunch”, mandating an hour of screen-free time to recharge in the middle of the day.
- A raft of email and Slack extensions allows people to schedule messages to be sent the next working day, instead of at ungodly hours.
The rise of holiday guilt
In the overheard words of a software engineer recently, “the ROI of holiday has plummeted in the last year.” The irony of holiday needing to have an ROI aside, there appears to be truth to the sentiment: with not much to do during time off besides stay at home, the allure of rolling over annual leave to the next year increases.
And, as everyone knows you’ll probably just be sitting at home during your time off, it can be harder to mentally switch off from work, and feelings of guilt can set in. Leaving your colleagues with a deadline to hit is one thing when you’ve got a flight to catch; leaving them with a deadline when you’ll be in your living room is another.
Fifty-one per cent of the people we surveyed reported feeling guilty about taking their full holiday allowance in 2020, and 30% of tech workers in particular took less holiday than previous years out of feelings of guilt.
Why is this a problem? Because people need regular time off to perform effectively. One study showed that a vicious cycle begins when people don’t take time off for a while: being tired, they perceive work demands to be greater and get overwhelmed, causing them to focus more intently on their work, with a detrimental effect on communication and collaboration, which in turn causes them and the team to be less effective.
Initiatives to help people take more time off
- One thing we’re doing at Spill is to make the percentage of quarterly team holiday days taken an official company KPI, because what gets measured gets focused on.
- The best way to avoid holiday FOMO could be to give everyone a holiday at the same time. That’s what UK TV broadcaster Channel 4 did recently when it gave everyone an extra ‘wellbeing day’ off work to spend however they liked.
- Restaurant chain Honest Burgers is letting every employee take a one-month paid sabbatical between now and the end of 2023.
Feeling less supported and less understood
Half of the employees surveyed felt their manager wasn’t equipped to support them with their mental health, and perhaps it’s no surprise that 38% of UK workers surveyed felt less supported by their colleagues over the last year: physical separation removes all the water-cooler chats, lunch breaks and so on while working next to each other.
But what was less expected was the rise in interpersonal work issues during 2020: 50% felt there were more instances of misunderstanding, 41% agreed that passive-aggressiveness had become more noticeable, and 75% thought interpersonal issues took longer to resolve. Why does this lead to burnout? As burnout is as much to do with how we manage our workload as the workload itself, if we feel we don’t have a strong and supportive base around us, the same amount of work can be perceived as much more difficult to deal with.
Initiatives to help people feel more supported and understood
- User manuals are a great way to proactively avoid misunderstandings. London tech company Unrival uses them to help employees be clearer with each other, especially when remote. A user manual is basically a cheat sheet on how to work with someone: how they like to receive feedback, how to know if they’re annoyed, and so on. It’s all the stuff we pick up over years of working with someone – but it’s far more helpful to know it explicitly and upfront.
- Line managers are key to employees feeling supported. As burnout and poor mental health became more prevalent over the last year, the need for managers to be properly trained in this area became clear.
- Therapy and counselling are proven to help employees feel more emotionally stable in as few as one or two sessions. Last year saw many companies increase their mental-health support offerings to employees.
Will Allen-Mersh is a Partner at Spill, a startup offering mental-health support to employees through Slack. He is a Guest Speaker on the Strategic Brand Management elective of London Business School’s MBA and Executive MBA programmes.
Illustration by Spencer Wilson