Burnout at work is a real epidemic. As a manager, it might sound like a great idea to have your company (or country) set rules everyone would follow, such as when people can and cannot send emails. France has done this. The right to disconnect law mandates companies who have more than 50 employees to set hours for sending emails. Outside of those hours, employees have no obligation to respond to emails.
Now, I’m not advocating for lots of email outside of regular hours, but I think that dictating practices like this is both limiting and potentially damaging. Why? Because successful work-life fulfillment is ultimately about choice. Legislating something like email hours takes away personal preference.
Consider the busy mom who is waiting for her young daughter at soccer practice and wants to access her email to get ahead for the next day or the manager who can knock off a couple of work tasks while they’re standing in line at the grocery store. Not everyone wants to use their Sundays to catch up on work (and they shouldn’t have to), but others may value those opportunities because they have other priorities to attend to during the week.
Supporting work-life fulfillment must be about choice. That means that as much as possible, companies need to let people choose where they work, how they work, and when they work.
People manage work-life in different ways
There are multiple right answers to how people manage work-life integration—not just one. Sometimes, people prefer a “container” approach in which they want to disconnect—keeping work separate from other parts of their life. In other cases, people prefer a more integrated approach in which work appropriately fits within pockets of time throughout the day, allowing for greater efficiency. The problem with a country- or company-mandated rule such as banning out-of-hours email is that it tries to impose a blanket solution, which doesn’t leave room for the multiple ways people prefer to work.
Treating people like adults mean giving people choices
One of the fundamental elements of being a grown-up is being able to manage your life and make your own choices. A study published in Frontiers in Psychology found a correlation between free will and satisfaction with life. According to researchers at the University of Rochester, people tend to be happier from Friday evenings through Sunday afternoons, no matter what kind of jobs they have. But the reason isn’t that they’re away from work. It’s because they have more choices in terms of how they choose to spend their time.
This same thinking should apply to work: Give people more choice about where and how they work because it tends to predict greater happiness. My employer, Steelcase, recently conducted a study that found a correlation between greater amounts of choice about work and increased engagement.
Work-life is as much about how you think as it is about what you do
Work-life fulfillment has a lot to do with the time people spend working—and not working. At the same time, it’s a cognitive challenge. Being able to have a respite from work isn’t about putting off emails but about being able to clear the mind. Sometimes, it’s more helpful to get something done and off your brain than to wait or wonder about a stressor at work. Allowing people to work when they want to helps them manage mental loads in their own way.
We need to stop seeing work as a bad thing
Another problem with the “banning emails” approach is the way it frames work as a problem or something to be held at bay. Yes, there are many aspects of our “always-on” work culture that are problematic for one’s mental and physical health. In every job, there’s always a certain level of drudgery. But work can also be an essential part of who we are and how we contribute, and it can also be a vehicle for meaning and a way of connecting with others.
In the end, it all comes down to company culture
Ultimately, companies that have employees who feel compelled to send emails after hours (and are burning out as a result) need to address a larger problem. They may have a culture that doesn’t value or empower employees to make their own decisions about how they want to work. In this instance, adopting blanket rules and policies won’t make much of a difference. They’ll be better off focusing their efforts in fostering organizational cultures where people feel valued, can make as many of their own decisions as possible, and can align their skills with work they crave to do.
There’s noble intent behind the “right-to-disconnect” roles, but it doesn’t always have the impact that it strives for. To improve work-life fulfillment among employees, companies should let people decide the approach that works best for them. Give people choices, value work as a positive part of a full life, and focus on creating constructive organizational cultures rather than a tyranny of rules.
Tracy Brower, PhD, MM, MCRw, is a sociologist focused on work, workers, and workplace, working for Steelcase. She is the author of Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work: A Guide for Leaders and Organizations.
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