Proof that work-life boundaries matter.

It’s harder than ever to get away from work. Technology makes it so easy to continue working beyond regular office hours. And in many ways, it’s become the normal and expected thing to do. Whether it’s through subtle messages in our workplace or the ‘hustle culture’ that’s grown over the past few years, the general belief is that those who work into the evenings and weekend are achieving more—and, as a result, will reap the rewards of doing so. But research has proven there are serious consequences when we don’t fully disconnect from work. It’s also shown that we’re better off when we do, both in our wellbeing and our professional capabilities.

While being connected to work 24/7 can make you feel like you’re on top of things and getting ahead, the data shows that “switching off” for a while so you can forget about work is more important. In 2018, a study was conducted to examine the impact of doing work outside of working hours. The results showed that it reduces our ability to get the sleep, cognitive recovery and energy we need to accomplish what’s required the next day at work. If you are one of those who spends personal time doing work, even something as simple as email and texts, you should know it can do you more harm than good. The reason for this is that you’re not providing yourself with the necessary time to detach and rejuvenate.

However, if you perform what they refer to in the study as "low effort activities,” you’ll be able to disconnect from work and refuel the resources you need to be effective the next day. Examples of “low effort activities” can vary, the key being that they are not related in any way to the demands of your job. Listening to music, reading or watching a show are helpful, as long as you don’t slip and end up doing work-related activities on your devices. Interestingly, household activities such as cooking and cleaning, which are often seen as stressful, are useful in helping us disconnect. The types of “low effort activities” that offer the most potential for recovery are those you enjoy doing, whatever they may be.   

Companies would be wise to learn from research like this. Many organizations are struggling with the rising costs of employee benefits. Some are trying to address this by committing to changes that will improve employee health and welfare. And yet, numerous studies suggest our workplaces are worse than ever.

  • Out of 2,000 professionals surveyed in 2018, nearly two-thirds said their work stress levels are much higher than 5 years prior.
  • This study across a wide variety of industries and organizations shows a direct correlation between employee stress and company expectations. In analyzing the data collected, researchers found that “both the actual time spent on emails and organizational expectations regarding employee availability to monitor work emails after hours lead to emotional exhaustion.”
  • Another study illustrates how common this problem has become. Among respondents aged 25 and up, 67% said they work on a typical weekend, 63% said their employers expect them to work weekends, and 61% said they find it difficult not to think about work over the weekend.

These numbers show how much the lines between our work and our personal time have blurred. It’s no longer enough for companies to talk about work-life balance. Management needs to foster a culture that respects and protects employees’ time outside of work. By ensuring that work demands on personal time are the exception, not the norm, companies can help reduce employee stress. Giving employees the downtime they need to recover from work will ultimately improve their productivity and performance. And with that, everyone benefits.

Research proves that work detachment and recovery is crucial, even for those who are driven to excel. Individuals and companies alike should be promoting and supporting the idea of work boundaries. Our time away from work should be truly that—time spent thinking about and doing non-work related things. This is how we will bring our best selves to work, each and every day.

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