Constant distraction can harm employees’ well-being

“Fear of missing out” applies in the workplace, too.

In a recent survey conducted by Travel Leaders Group, more than 62% of respondents said they check email or voicemail while on vacation.

This may seem like a harmless, or even beneficial, result of technology allowing flexibility in where employees work, but there’s a dark side.

Employees can experience stress and burnout when they don’t take enough time to fully disconnect from work.

A study published by the Academy of Management showed that when employees feel they are expected to monitor email during off hours, it can result in anxiety and strained family relationships. It’s not just time spent dealing with email that causes strain, but simply the “anticipatory stress” of knowing that at any time they might need to stop what they’re doing to respond to an immediate request.

A growing recognition of the impact of expecting employees to be available at all hours has led to laws in France and Italy stating that employee contracts must explicitly address any expectations of after-hours communication.

Safety, productivity also at risk

Just as incessant communication can negatively impact an employee’s home life, it can affect their work life too.

When employees are constantly distracted by incoming emails, texts and social media messages, it can make them less productive and safe.

From a productivity standpoint, research has shown that most people can’t really multitask. If they think they’re doing two things at once, they’re really switching back and forth between them and in the process they’re likely losing time — potentially a lot of time.

Research suggests that it can take up to 20 or 30 minutes to get back to work on your original task after an interruption, according to researchers Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen.

From a safety standpoint, we continue to see workplace injuries resulting from being distracted.

For example, an employee walking out of work while reading his phone is hit in the parking ramp by another employee who’s driving while looking at her phone. Or an employee trips and falls while walking down the stairs because he’s looking at his phone. And of course, distracted driving is a growing danger to everyone on the roads, including those who drive for work.

What employers can do

More employers are recognizing the value of encouraging their employees to unplug while off work, and stay focused during working hours.

Here are a few ideas to consider:

  • Encourage employees to use their vacation time
    More than half of American employees don’t use all their vacation time, according to Project Time Off, and those who do are often still connected to the office. You can send a clear message that employees should not feel guilty for using their vacation time nor for disconnecting from communication unless there’s an emergency. The German car company Daimler goes so far as to auto-delete emails sent to employees who are on vacation. The sender is notified that the email was deleted and given the option to email a colleague or resend the email after the employee returns to the office, according to Harvard Business Review.
  • Discourage emailing after hours
    It’s up to leaders to set expectations about whether employees can truly unplug when they’re off work. You can foster an environment where it’s clear your employees are allowed to wait to address any issues that come up until they are back at work.
  • Educate employees about the value of focused work
    In our distraction-heavy world, your employees might not realize how much of a toll constant dings and buzzes are taking on their productivity and well-being. They may also be unaware that there’s another way to work. Provide them with practical techniques to minimize distractions. Something as simple as turning their cell phones to silent can make a big difference.

While sometimes it can be a good thing that we’re all so accessible, this ease of contact also has its downsides. As a leader, it’s important to think critically about all aspects of constant communication to maximize the benefits and minimize the harm to your employees.

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