Help your staff flip the “off” switch
1/ Assess the addiction
To help your teams manage the boundaries between office and home:
- Analyze what lies behind workaholic behaviors. Generally linked to a need for recognition, they are a hangover from the 1990s ethos of “staying late at the office to show that you’re working hard.” In doing so, your staff are looking for not only your esteem, but also social recognition: “I work a lot; therefore I have lots of responsibilities; therefore I am important”).
- Ask your staff about their work habits… and read between the lines when they reply. Is it a straightforward desire to boost self-esteem, or does it result from a genuinely excessive workload? Is it attributable to high motivation or is it a case of emotional overinvestment?
- Don’t blame the tools: “Too many emails,” etc., is a classic — but far too glib — response. The explosion in new technologies has exacerbated a problem that already existed. Simply banning smartphones will not solve the problem of work addiction.
2/ Distinguish between an enthusiastic employee and someone who is at risk
Be careful to differentiate between a workaholic who is really suffering and an employee who simply sees an opportunity to organize their tasks in a more flexible manner.
- Tailor your approach to individuals:do not try to change someone’s personality. For some staff, looking at emails while they are on holiday actually has a de-stressing effect, because it means they will not have to manage a mass of mails when they return to work.
- Recognize emotional overinvestment. This type of behavior is marked by obsessive tendencies that fall into the category of behavioral addictions. According to the latest study by the Institute of Environmental Medicine (IME), this is the precursor to major forms of psychosocial disorders and may also lead to work-addict behaviors that can end in burnout.
3/ Put safeguards in place early on
You can help educate your staff about the need to switch off.
- Show employees that you can wait. “Why haven’t you replied to the email I sent eight minutes ago?” If you demand immediate answers to your questions, do not be surprised if the first thing your staff do when they get out of bed in the morning is check their emails to make sure that there are no problems waiting for them (especially if you are yourself in the habit of sending emails outside office hours).
- Remind staff that they are expected to be able to prioritize. Show them that you prefer colleagues who stay focused on the essentials. Individuals who manage to prioritize their work assignments are the most successful at organizing their private and professional lives.
- Underline the importance of taking a break. By emphasizing the beneficial effects of having a rest — even when under pressure — you legitimatize leisure hours outside the office. You can then show that a colleague who leaves at six in the evening is not a “slacker” but someone who stops so that he or she can be more effective the next day.
4/ Rethink how team members work together
Some members of staff may be reluctant to switch off simply because they have a lot of work.
- Adjust workloads. Before tackling problems of addiction, check that tasks have not been organized to the detriment of some of the members of staff.
- Promote cooperation. Create a positive work environment that encourages mutual support rather than competition. A cooperative environment encourages employees to trust colleagues with their work when they are away from the office; as a result, they find it easier to switch off.
- Organize tasks. Formally reorganizing work before colleagues go away serves to reassure them (“I know that someone will look after my client”) and helps co-workers prepare for added responsibilities.
5/ Do not give in to panic if someone is absent
No one is indispensable. You should be able to compensate for the temporary absence of any staff member.
- Make the boss/client wait. Do you have an impromptu request that only an absent member of staff can respond to? Feel free to make your client or boss wait. Learning how to say, “No, I will not be able to reply to you before such a date or time” is a skill expected of a leader.
- Try to find the required information elsewhere. Before you decide to disturb your staff member who is on holiday on the other side of the world, check to see whether he or she really is the only person who can solve the problem. If that turns out to be the case, take the opportunity to review your team’s work processes: were the tasks badly organized before your colleague’s departure
6/ Only disturb an employee on holiday as a last resort
If you really end up not having a choice, always make sure that you choose:
- The right medium: a text or email is better than a panicky phone call that will take your employee by surprise;
- The right time of day: the morning is better than seven o’clock at night, to give the employee time to find a solution and contact you when he or she deems it most appropriate (remember to take note of time-zone differences);
- The right tone: no good comes of passing on your stress. Keep things brief and stick to the facts while making it clear how urgent your request really is.
Whether you are on holiday, during the weekend, or simply after office hours, get yourself into the habit of switching off (at least once in a while!). Perhaps even unconsciously, employees often imitate the behavior of their managers. A manager who gives the impression of being connected around the clock is sending an unconscious signal: “I expect the same kind of thing from you.”
Based on Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous to Your Organization by Jonathan B. Spira (Wiley, June 2011)