The phone beeps at the dinner table, an important email arrives in the middle of a child’s birthday party.
We may not be chained to the desk after 5pm but we often cannot escape our flashing smartphones, bulging voicemail boxes or late night conference calls.
Experts warn that workers are at risk of burnout in the digital era, burdened by the strain of permanently being on call outside of office hours.
The French government are so worried about the health implications that they included “the right to disconnect” in a controversial new labour reform bill this year, suggesting that companies of 50 or more employees draft formal policies to limit the spill-over of work.
This would include specifying hours where employees are not supposed to send or receive email.
However, while work-related exhaustion is a tangible risk, on the upside digital technology offers greater flexibility to carers or parents who cannot work conventional hours, allowing some to manage their lives in a more effective way.
How then should companies and employees deal with the blurring of the boundaries between private and professional lives?
Should companies follow the lead of car manufacturer Volkswagen of turning off servers after hours, or should workers be allowed to set their own limits?
“First and foremost it’s about making sure that people have realistic workloads that fit with their contracted hours,” said Sally Brett, a senior policy analyst at the UK’s Trade Union Congress [TUC].
“There is a real concern that a lot of the time people work from anywhere because they can’t get the job done in the contracted hours,” she said.
“We’re seeing cuts in workforce numbers and not corresponding reductions in workload, so businesses that are stretched are just loading more onto employees rather than recruiting additional posts.”
The TUC warned last year that too many workers were “stuck in Burnout Britain” after concluding in a study that the number working more than 48 hours a week had risen by 15% since 2010, a total of 3.4 million. This increases the risk of stroke, heart disease and diabetes.
Legally, employees should be protected from excessive hours under national legislation and the European Union’s Working Time Directive. The directive grants employees across the 28-nation bloc the right to work no more than 48 hours a week, although the UK has an opt-out if an employee gives written consent.
After Britain voted to leave the EU in June’s referendum, fears are rising that the directive may be revoked, potentially reducing employees’ protection. The TUC claimed in May that a million more employees were at high risk of being forced to work excessive hours.
“There is a risk that EU rules will no longer apply,” said Brett. “I heard some people saying British workers should be free to work hard, like this is an inherent part of the British character, that we were being held back in some way by not being allowed to work such long hours.”
However, even with legislation in place, some employees still come under pressure.
“Often you have an employer in a more dominant position and they are just presenting a contract to someone who is in need of work. It’s presented on a take it or leave it basis. They either have to work long hours or they have no job,” said Brett.
Flexibility or overtime?
But when it comes to tackling the spill-over of work caused by digital technology, “there is no single answer,” said Professor Jon Whittle from Lancaster University, who led a two year study called the Digital Brain Switch, a project looking at the impacts of technology on work-life balance.
“The main research question we were trying to understand is how people switch between different roles or identities,” he said.
“The idea being that back in the day when you couldn’t check your email at home you’d have your work identity and you’d have a very clear cut off transition to go home and be in a different role in your family life,” he said.
“Now, being always connected, we’re still switching between those different roles of friends, colleagues, partner, husband, father, and it’s happening very fast and it’s happening all the time. We were interested in understanding how people deal with that and what stresses that relates to.”
The study looked at 45 different case studies, and concluded that everyone experienced the “digital switch” in a different way.
“Some people would tell you that they are better off not checking email outside of work hours because they feel stressed but other people say if I don’t then I feel stressed because I’m worrying about what’s waiting for me the next day.”
The project created the website myliferocket.com, to allow employees to check for themselves which scenarios caused the most stress and how to deal with it.
One point of consistency among study participants was that many felt they were on their own.
People often blamed themselves if they didn’t get the balance right but the role of organisations should not be downplayed, said Professor Gillian Symon from Royal Holloway, University of London, a co-investigator on the Brain Switch project.
“An organisation should think what kind of pressure they are putting on people,” she said. “They shouldn’t be waiting for them to not cope. It’s about being proactive. Organisations know how people are using these technologies. They can very easily monitor it.”
Regular consultations with employees about their use of technology could help combat stress. Companies should also try to spot patterns in employee behaviour, she said.
“What is the culture that is encouraging people to feel like they have to be on email at night?” she said.
Entrepreneurs work the longest
The self-employed, who had no boss to tell them when to stop, could turn to companies like Europe Unlimited, who exist to support entrepreneurs.
“We don’t talk much about the self-employed,” said Symon. “They really punish themselves because they want to get their business up and running.”
Samantha Seewoosurrun, an entrepreneur and the managing director at Acuitas Communications, an international PR firm focussed on financial services, has to find a daily balance between building up her business and raising three small children.
Based on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, she also manages the Brussels operation, and deals with clients in London and across Africa and Asia.
“It does mean working across a number of time-zones, which has its advantages and disadvantages when you have three kids,” she said. “At a particularly busy time, the working day can begin at 5am and it normally only ends at 9pm.”
Strict time management was the key to success, she said. “You have to have a lot of stamina because the working day is very much longer, but then on the plus side, it does mean that the time when the children would be picked up from school actually coincides with lunchtime in Europe.”
“Those are the sorts of things where you are able to organise yourself and make time for the family in various chunks of the day,” she said. “The other advantage is that as a consultant, within certain parameters you can choose the times of your meetings.”
At weekends, Seewoosurrun said she had to be disciplined enough to switch off from work and technology.
“I think as an entrepreneur if you do let it intrude into the entire weekend then you don’t have any rest at all,” she said.
Stuart Gee, Head of Information and Guidance at the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, a government body devoted to preventing and resolving employment disputes, said that employers needed address the challenges of digital technology.
“One of the things is not to assume that all people benefit from the same thing equally,” he said.
ACAS provides advice for employees struggling to keep the balance, particularly younger, less experienced workers.
Young people needed to know their entitlements, and make sure they understood exactly what is expected of them before taking up a job, said Gee.
“You are entitled to something in writing that sets out the working hours expectations that you have,” he said. “Ask sensible questions in the interview about what the expectations are, how it’s going to work, what you’ll be doing.”
Employers should also consider exactly the type of person they needed to fill a vacancy before advertising, and regularly discuss working practices with employees, he said.
“We’ve got a little book called Flexible Working and Work/Life Balance that might be useful,” said Gee.
“A feeling of wellbeing will usually have a positive impact on workplace productivity so, from an employer’s point of view, it’s in their interests to look at how they can help.”
Nicola Smith has spent a decade reporting for The Sunday Times on both the European Union and South Asia.