Challenging Digital Boundaries

If your doctor only glanced at your chart before telling you that you have cancer and that you need surgery, you'd likely get a second opinion. If your surgeon greeted you on the morning of surgery and told you that he was awake the night before answering emails from the hospital's chief of staff, you'd likely jump off the table and run. Yet, in the name of customer service, we expect lawyers, accountants and other professionals to respond quickly to emails and be available 24/7. We have forgotten the value of a thoughtful response and well-rested professionals.

Employees respond to the growing digital pressure. A report by Knowledge at Wharton revealed that 83% of professional workers check their emails after work, 66% take their technology with them on vacation, and more than 50% report sending emails while having a meal with family or friends. The MIT Sloan Management Review reported that 73% of employees worry that they will be at a disadvantage at work if they disconnect or do not instantly respond.

Even when not pressured by the boss, many adults are as addicted to their smartphone as their children. Some adults check emails and texts more than 150 times a day. These urges are fueled by a psychological need to feel wanted, important and avoid "missing out." Failure to respond immediately results in stress, worry and fear so the sender makes more attempts to communicate and overwhelms others' and their inboxes.

Triaging work emails at night contributes to stress because emails are like rabbits -- they multiply. Emails beget responses, which beget replies. Additionally, checking emails from the boss or clients before bedtime contributes to insomnia.

A "faster is better" customer service style and a constantly connected work force is costly. Professionals who do not disconnect suffer from chronic stress, which contributes to physical and mental health issues. Because time and focus is lost each time one redirects attention from a task to an email and back, employees who are "always connected" are less productive and creative. Personal relationships are impacted too. Many parents sit at the family dinner table focused on messages from colleagues instead of family.

Companies also pay the price for the constantly connected work culture. Pressure to work everywhere and all of the time often results in increased absenteeism, burnout and work/life conflict. Additionally, companies are facing increasing threats of lawsuits from employees, who are seeking compensation for time spent answering emails after hours. This litigation threat may grow, if the Labor Department raises the salary threshold for overtime pay. It is time to challenge assumptions about a constantly-connected workforce.

Since no one wants to be viewed as a slacker, change must start at the top of an organization by revising policies that reflect thicker boundaries between work and home, including agreed-upon offline time. Harvard Professor Leslie Perlow found that just one predictable night off improved job satisfaction for teams. Additionally, work product and productivity can be improved by encouraging employees to disconnect for periods of time during the day to focus on a project. Just as patients want well-rested and thoughtful doctors, clients need to be educated about these benefits for all professionals. To allay fears of important clients and colleagues, key staff can offer their cell numbers, recognizing that people feel less comfortable calling than emailing after hours.

Because role models matter, leaders must model healthy habits with technology and respect others' boundaries. For example, leaders should put late night emails in the "draft box" to be sent during normal work hours to allow team members to psychologically detach from the office and recover from the workday stress. Consensus among teams and organizations about offline time and reasonable response times will help limit the build up of the inbox over night.

Checking dozens of times each day results in hours of lost productivity and accuracy because time is lost while reorienting to the original task and more mistakes occur after returning to the work task. Productivity and accuracy can be improved by spending focused time on email and turning off notifications between email sessions. For example, employees can schedule 30-minute email sessions three times a day or avoid email until the most important task of the day is done.

For those who feel addicted to technology, digital "recovery" starts by changing their self-talk. For example, it is important to recognize: 1) people are in charge of technology and not the other way around; 2) flexibility does not mean always available; 3) busy answering emails does not mean productive; and 4) emergencies are rare. Additionally, like the principle of scarcity, which suggests that people value the things that are not easily available, people who are not always available are valued more by others. Employees should be encouraged to identify their strengths beyond, "always available, first to respond."

Highly addicted people may need to start small, such as going to the grocery store without a cell phone or doing morning routines without checking email and turning off notifications to quell the urge to check. Separating personal and work emails will avoid inadvertently getting sucked into work matters after hours. Practicing mindfulness -- being present and attentive where you are -- also improves relationships and boundaries between work and home.

Following a heart attack, one chief executive officer at a national real estate company took a hard look at his life and his company's "always on" culture. He surprised his employees at a national meeting by challenging them to disconnect more and to create time for deep thought and reflection. In the knowledge economy, people are the company's greatest assets. Ignoring the costs of the constantly connected work culture is dangerous. There is no need to wait for a wake up call; developing a healthier relationship with and use of technology will benefit the organization, the employees, and their clients.

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