Is 'Availability Creep' Leading to Burnout?
There is no doubt that the increased use of technology has had many benefits in how effectively we can work, and providing flexibility for how and when we work. Especially for those in more senior roles, which typically require more hours, higher attendance and a greater degree of availability. It has meant that where previously these senior executives would need to be on site for upwards of 12 hours per day, they could be as available, but not on site at the workplace for such lengthy hours.
But when the way we work changes for everyone in the workplace, thanks to a global pandemic, the impacts of this excessive availability have now come to light. With 18 months of working from home, remote and hybrid teams, we have enough data and information to see the impact this change is having on our teams.
The reality is our workplaces, and the way we work have changed forever, and in many ways, this is a good thing. I have spoken in the past about my belief that we have fast forwarded 10 year, we were always on a trajectory to have more flexible workplaces, allowing for working from home and other forms of remote work, but we were very slow in moving in that direction, until there was no other choice. So, with that being the case, it’s important that we look at how we structure our hybrid work models to ensure they are not only sustainable, but also so that they maximise productivity, efficiency and engagement.
The ability to work from anywhere, and at any time, means that we can create maximum flexibility. There are many benefits to this, we can allow our teams to work when they are at their best and most productive, we can allow them to work and juggle working from home arrangements, we can create environments where work integrates into lifestyle far more seamlessly.
But the flip side of this, when you have team members working any time, and therefor someone is working all of the time, we have the issue of responsiveness, availability and the ability to switch off and disconnect.
The key issue here is a concept being called ‘the availability creep’ where the lines between work and personal time are blurred, and where staff feel the need to be ‘available’ and ready to respond across a wide span of hours each day.
We’ve all been there, you know the feeling, you quickly check an email and respond at 7am, you work your full day, and then you’re making sure you respond in the evenings when someone who might be working later sends an email. The reality is that person doesn’t expect you to immediately respond, but we’re human and we want to do the right thing by everyone, so we do.
Recently we’ve seen this issue be tabled in consultation around a workplace enterprise agreement, who have since implemented a clause within their agreement which allows employees the right to disconnect. The clause stipulates, that unless owing to emergencies, staff can’t be contacted on their days off and outside of their hours. This is a proactive measure to avoid and reduce burnout – and we know that burnout leads to decreased productivity and efficiencies.
France passed similar laws across their country back in 2017, so this is far from a new concept, but I think it’s something we need to all consider in our new world of work.
So what can we as employers do to continue to foster and encourage flexibility, to provide that for our teams, but also to ensure there are structures in place to manage availability creep, to allow our employees, and ourselves to disconnect and to ensure we reduce the chance of burnout becoming a problem?
In my view this all comes down to communication and boundary setting, and involving our team in that process. For example, if you can give your team complete freedom about when they work, ask them to nominate their usual work hours, and ensure everyone is aware of these, and set the expectation that people will not be checking and responding to emails or other communication outside of these hours,
Importantly as the leader it’s critical that you lead by example here, which will mean you not responding to things, unless urgent, outside of your hours and respecting the boundaries you’ve agreed with amongst your team.
This can be something that you create to suit your business, the boundaries may look different, the structure may be less flexible, but the key is open and transparent communication about what’s expected in terms of being ‘on call’ and ready to respond, and when it’s not only acceptable but expected that people take the opportunity to disconnect, physically and mentally, from work.
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