The Perils of Our 'On-Call' Work Culture

In my work as an executive coach and keynote, clients and audience members frequently talk about their lack of "downtime." Even when they are home, there is rarely a sense of relief from work.
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In my work as an executive coach and keynote, clients and audience members frequently talk about their lack of "downtime." Even when they are home, there is rarely a sense of relief from work.

In a recent investigation, researchers were curious about how being "on-call" affected various health indicators. Studying a group of shift workers provided an ideal opportunity to see whether those who were on-call reported significantly more issues than their off-call counterparts.

Results suggested this was in fact the case. On-call workers reported poorer sleep patterns, which is significant considering the links between sleep and our overall well-being and performance. Research shows that people who do not get sufficient sleep are at a greater risk for physical health problems, such as obesity and poor immune system functioning.

Sleep also affects our capacity to learn and interferes with our memory. Not surprisingly, lack of sleep has been found to decrease our levels of performance. It also compromises our ability to make good decisions, control our emotions and negatively impacts how we respond to and cope with change.

Another key finding was that on-call employees needed significantly more recovery time. This relationship was especially pronounced when there were other issues, such as poor mental or physical health, or work-life balance challenges. Recovery time has been linked to numerous important health outcomes, including absenteeism.

What struck me most about the research was the overall conclusion "the mere possibility of being called heightens the need for recovery." The unpredictability of whether or not someone will be called contributes to the observed negative outcomes. People are essentially constantly vigilant, searching their environment (e.g., smartphones) for threats. Not surprisingly, this can lead to feelings of exhaustion, as employees never feel fully detached from work.

Although most people may argue they are not shift workers, there is certainly overlap when it comes to the sense of being "on-call." People are generally in constant contact with the office, as most bring their smartphones home at the end of the day. When people send emails in the evening, it is not uncommon to receive (and even expect) a reply.

This reality makes an interesting parallel to the aforementioned research. When bringing our smartphones home with us, are we not essentially "on-call?" In this similar situation, executives could face similar challenges as shift workers.

The sense of being "on-call" is further reinforced by the lack of conversation about how we manage our smartphones. When I ask clients about the expectations of smartphone use after hours, my question is usually met with some discomfort. Most people tell me there has never been a formal discussion about it. People are reluctant to address it with their superiors for fear the subject will not be well-received or that they will be perceived as not being fully committed to their work

Even well-meaning and employee-centered leaders can unknowingly contribute to the problem. Recently I had a conversation with an executive about smartphones seeming to be a source of significant stress and overwork. As she was agreeing with this assessment, I asked her how this issue had been dealt with and communicated within her team.

She told me how often she discusses the importance of maintaining a work-life balance with her team members and that they know how much she cares about them. She said that while she routinely responds to email after hours, her employees surely know that they are not expected to do the same.

Out of curiosity, I asked her whether she had specifically talked to her employees about her expectations for their smartphone use outside of the office. She said she had not, as she believed that the discussions about work-life balance were sufficient for her employees to understand her expectations.

I asked her to step back and consider whether her employees were interpreting her messages in the way she intended. In other words, did she feel that there may be mixed messages going on here? She paused for a moment and said "I never thought of it that way." Upon reflection, she could see how even though she talked about the importance of maintaining a work-life balance, she was not following her own advice. So, in the absence of specific direction, it was very possible that her team would be following her lead.

I encouraged her to initiate a conversation with her team and openly share these expectations and field any questions. When we talked again, she was amazed at the discussion that ensued. Because of how much they respected her, the team struggled with how they should handle after-hours emails. They were concerned about asking her, as they did not want her to think she was 'not a nice boss' or was unclear in her direction. The downside was this miscommunication continued to exist. When faced with conflicting messages, they decided to follow her lead (i.e. be constantly available) rather than risk making the wrong choice and be reprimanded for their unresponsiveness.

Final thoughts

It seems that being "on-call" is a constant reality in our society. We are continually stretched with multiple and competing demands. This invariably takes a toll on us from a psychological and physical perspective.

Nowhere is this challenge more prevalent than at work, where smartphones leave us connected to our offices 24/7. At the same time, this presents a great opportunity for leaders to address a major contributor to their employees feeling overwhelmed. Taking the time to explicitly state your email/smartphone expectations can be invaluable for preserving and even enhancing the well-being of your team. Better yet, take the time to initiate an open discussion about how your team members would prefer to handle these challenges. Fostering a sense of community and providing concrete direction may be the solution to addressing this emerging and serious problem.

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