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August 26, 2014

Do IT pros need their own labor movement? As Americans head into a relaxing three-day weekend of beach trips and barbecues, many IT workers will remain chained to their phones and computers, on call to solve problems that arise or just answer inquiries. Many IT pros report the expectation or need to be on call 24/7 has caused great stress, and some say they wish they’d never entered the profession.

Labor Day marks the gains American workers have made. And we’ve come a long way since factory workers fought for shorter work days and weeks, among other rights. For people toiling for 16-hours in factories, reasonable working hours were vitally important for their physical health. While IT workers enjoy easy physical conditions, rest is still important for their mental health.

But for the professional class―particularly IT workers―the issues have become more complex than needing shorter work days. Shifting expectations of when workers should jump online or respond to email have affected IT pros across the board, but particularly senior leaders. A recent TEKsystems poll of IT pros showed the immense expectations placed upon them:

  • Vacation: Almost half of senior IT pros report they’re expected to be available 24/7—even while on vacation
  • Expectations of availability: Just one in 10 IT leaders are expected to be available only during business hours
  • Three-quarters of IT professionals are motivated to find a new job because of workload stress
  • Overall, 58 percent of IT workers reported they’d actually take a pay cut to reduce their stress

Of course, online connectivity isn’t all bad. Many workers have unprecedented flexibility to work from home. But the ability to unplug completely from work is important to both workers and their employers. While the benefit of having IT available in case any catastrophes arise has obvious benefits, workers suffer a subtle long-term loss of mental function. In order to function at peak mental levels when we work, we need to experience true downtime.

Adding to the complex nature of this problem, many Americans report that they prefer to remain accessible while off work. However, a University of California at Irvine study showed that workers denied email access for five days reported significantly lower levels of stress and better concentration. And Harvard Business Review research showed while workers who check email from home tend to report generally feeling positive about being able to do so, they also report higher daily stress—suggesting that don’t see or understand the effects of constant availability.  

Yet, many companies report that they don’t expect this level of availability from their employees; in fact, some are taking steps to discourage or even ban after-hours communications.

How can employers help?

In addition to managing their own expectations about when workers will be available, employers need to define expectations about after-hours communication. Here are a few guidelines your organization might want to try:    

  1. Create and advertise your policy. If you’re not defining your company’s expectations, other people are, and implicit norms are just as powerful.  
  2. Limit after-work communications from leaders. If the boss must send a 1am email, preface it with something like “Don’t respond to this until tomorrow.”
  3. Cut down on all email traffic so people’s in-boxes don’t blow up on vacation. To start, discourage workers from using the “reply all” function. Remove people on vacation from email chains. And explicitly discourage people from including everyone on innocuous messages like “thanks” and “got it.”
  4. Agree to call employees if there’s an after-hours emergency. Knowing they’ll get a phone call if they’re urgently needed frees workers from incessantly checking their emails. 

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