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Finding the sweet spot between work and leisure time is an artform even in the most normal of times. In Germany they have a word for it, feierabend, which translates as ‘end of working day’ and describes the exact period when leisurely fun can begin. But feierabend is far easier to achieve when a home hasn’t been a makeshift office for the past nine months.
Back in the summer with millions in the UK on furlough, ‘switching off’ from the office meant logging in for weekly Zoom quizzes and virtual coffees. For a time the freedom could be fun and bosses were mostly accommodating to this new way of working. Productivity was up, city pollution came down and people shunned clothes in their millions. Soon after however, when the world quickly realised quizzes should exist only in pubs, bosses learned that being stuck at home means you’re contactable 24/7 and they can still give you grief during a pandemic.
Research published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology found that rude work emails are both bad for your health and are on the rise in lockdown. We’re also spending a lot more of our time looking at screens. The latest figures from Ofcom found that 27.9 million people, 88 per cent of online adults, visited an email service in September, up 1.5 million from January, while the number of people watching news is higher than the same time in the previous two years.
In the UK our work-life balance was already blurred before the pandemic. In 2019, five million UK workers put in a total of two billion unpaid hours, an average of 7.9 extra hours per week worth £35 billion of free labour over the year.
The question is, how can you switch off after 6pm? The nuclear option is to shut your laptop, turn off your phone, log out of all work apps and sink further into the sofa in blissful ignorance of the carnage overtaking your inbox. But this probably isn’t practical to do every day. Mental health charity Mind recommends setting up ‘work’ and ‘personal’ laptop logins to help workers mentally differentiate between the two and employees should block work emails for a period of time, suggests the Harvard Pilgrim Health Institute. For both Gmail and Outlook, the ‘Inbox Pause’ feature by third-party plugin Boomerang stops new email from hurtling into your Inbox until you’re ready.
In reality, though, that isn’t so simple when working life is increasingly timestamped. Slack and Microsoft Teams show when an employee is ‘active’, Google Docs keeps timed records of document updates and the dreaded WhatsApp blue tick notifies users when you fail to respond to their ‘urgent’ message.
Employers are also finding ever-more creative ways of micromanaging your day. Sales of employee home surveillance software have boomed during the pandemic with some companies such as US-based Hubstaff relishing in a 300 percent sales increase. At first, these spy tactics caused outcry. Now they’ve become somewhat normalised.
There are ways to avert their eyes. Apps such as Presence Scheduler will keep your Slack ‘active’ even when you’re away from your desk, although it’s success is pretty mixed. On WhatsApp, iPhone users can choose to leave their bosses on read and turn off blue tick notifications by navigating to options > Settings > Account > Privacy and opting to turn off read receipts. Manage your notifications too. Stop Gmail, Slack and Twitter from lighting up your phone and only check work messages from your home desktop (because you’re there all the time anyway).
“When you see the instantaneous acknowledgment that a message has been received, it triggers your assumption that someone should respond just as quickly,” behavioral scientist Pamela Rutledge told INSIDER in 2019, explaining how this perceived rejection can cause people to feel undervalued. For Android owners, individual profiles can be created that separate work apps and data from personal ones.
Sadly, though, the best ways of avoiding work are not as satisfying as ignoring your superiors. Plan your day better, says Martin Talks, founder of business consultancy firm Digital Detoxing, as forward thinking, in theory, means there’s little need to be contacted during down time. “The problem is in the way our bosses manage our time,” he says. “Leaders, usually, have gotten into leadership positions without any leadership training. They’re not suited to the times we find ourselves in so it’s down to the employee to design their day. That would help people to feel like they’re able to get their job done, then they won’t necessarily need to be constantly messaged or interrupted.”
Talks also suggests trying to break the habit cycles of phone use altogether. “The best Christmas present people can buy themselves is an alarm clock,” he says. “If people don’t use their phone as an alarm clock next to their bed then they don’t disappear down the rabbit hole of social media or get tempted to reply to that email straight away.”
There’s no shortage of work-related, productivity boosting mobile apps that claim to help people achieve enlightenment in an Excel spreadsheet. Some aim to overhaul your entire working life like Flora, a distraction defeating app used by over two million people. Others nudge you in the right direction. Habit Tracker for Android, well, tracks your habits, allowing you to cut out the bad ones – watching Come Dine With Me at 11am every day – and concentrate on the – in this case, work – while Todoist streamlines your daily tasks and deadlines into a single app and is Gmail, Slack and Alexa integrated.
This is a catch 22, though. After all, using your phone to stay off your phone is somewhat counterproductive when the most failsafe option to setting workplace boundaries is to simply talk it out with your boss.
“People dread being seen as anything but 100 per cent conscientious in a world where jobs are at risk, but the reality is only you can determine how you spend your day,” says Geraldine Gallacher, founder of executive coaching firm ECC. “It falls to the individual to work out their boundaries but this is harder for people to do than you might expect.”
Gallacher says the key to approaching these awkward conversations is with empathy, remembering that bosses are probably trying to find motivation down the side of the sofa too. “Prepare thoroughly, know what you want to say, understand their perspective and be specific about what you’re asking for,” she suggests. But what if your boss is a nightmare? “You won’t influence them anyway so stand your precious ground,” she says. Failing that, just leave them on read.
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