I remember the first time I took a work-related call on holiday. I was in my first year of self-employment and, desperate not to miss any opportunity to build up my small client base, I lay on a beach in Spain with my phone in one hand and diary in the other and took a booking. Since then I’ve answered calls on New Year’s Day and replied to texts on Boxing Day, because it’s what I thought was expected of me. Because it’s what I thought constituted good customer service.
I continued to think like this for much of the past 10 years, even as my client base grew and I found that I was spending almost all of my free time working. One day I awoke to the realisation that this had made me tired and resentful and it was then that it dawned on me that actually, in order to serve my clients best, I needed to improve my work-life balance.
A survey for GFI Software earlier this year found that 60% of workers check their work email while they’re on holiday. This doesn’t surprise me because many of my clients have admitted to it. Their rationale is that the idea of returning to an overflowing in-box is so stressful that they wouldn’t be able to enjoy their holiday if they didn’t do some deck-clearing while they were away. The problem with this, aside from the fact that doing any work at all on holiday goes against the entire purpose of taking a holiday, is that it creates a culture of unreasonable employer expectation, which eventually impacts everyone who works for an organisation. Arnold Bakker, a professor of work and organisational psychology at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, showed in 2012 that heavy smartphone use had a significant negative impact on work-life balance.
A BUPA study of 2000 UK workers this summer found that whilst on holiday, more than half (54%) of them said they were envisaging full email inboxes while a third (32%) noted that calls from work were another fear. Two in five (41%) people also said they had to put in extra hours in preparation for their own holiday. As a result, the study found one in three (34%) had experienced stress, anxiety or depression over the summer.
From an employer’s perspective, work related stress already costs Britain 10.4 million working days per year. The human costs of unmanaged work related stress extends far beyond this and the main way to protect the mental health of employees against the potential detrimental effects of work related stress, is to ensure they have a healthy work-life balance. Bakker’s work showed that poor work-life balance leads to more burned-out employees, which manifests itself as exhaustion and cynicism. The BUPA study concluded “Employees must be allowed to take their full annual leave entitlement and for that time-off to be a genuine break from work. It’s vital to maintain a healthy work-life balance and focus on family and relationships, uninterrupted by calls and emails.”
According to WebMD “The human body is designed to experience stress and react to it. Stress can be positive, keeping us alert and ready to avoid danger. Stress becomes negative when a person faces continuous challenges without relief or relaxation between challenges. As a result, the person becomes overworked and stress-related tension builds.
Stress that continues without relief can lead to a condition called distress – a negative stress reaction. Distress can lead to physical symptoms including headaches, upset stomach, elevated blood pressure, chest pain, and problems sleeping. Research suggests that stress also can bring on or worsen certain symptoms or diseases.”
In short, poor work-life balance has a profound negative effect on both individuals and industry. It has an impact on our mental health, our physical health, our relationships, our effectiveness, and our attitude towards work. So next time you feel tempted to check your work email or answer your work phone when you’re not actually working, remind yourself (and your boss) that you’ll be a happier, healthier and more productive worker if you don’t.