Why Companies Should Force Employees to Unplug

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And yet, this dedication to our jobs does not translate into increased productivity: Computers, mobile phones and the steady stream of stimuli they offer wreak havoc on our concentration. A study conducted in 2009 by a group of Stanford University researchers found that people who are regularly bombarded with different types of electronic information do not pay attention, and do not switch from one job to another, as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time.

“People feel this constant need to be connected,” states Nancy Rothbard, a Wharton management professor. “There’s no priority structure. Everything is urgent. Everything is red flagged. Yes, there are advantages to having these technologies — we can work more flexibly, and we can respond to crises more speedily. But there are disadvantages that we are underestimating.”

Chronic media-multitaskers are more prone to distractions and less able to focus on one thing at a time. “There are a lot of important tasks that require a great deal of focus, such as decision-making or writing,” Rothbard points out. “These activities become challenging when you’ve got pings and dings going off, pulling your attention away from the task at hand.”

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It is sometimes difficult to even imagine a world without these distractions. Justin McDaniel, a religious studies professor at Penn, teaches a class called “Living Deliberately,” which has no exams, no formal papers and little required reading. However, students are expected to modify their lifestyles with a set of restrictions drawn from monastic traditions: They must give up alcohol and refrain from using electronic and verbal communication. McDaniel, who insists he is neither a hippie nor a technophobe, says he received a great deal of initial interest in the course, but once students understood the requirements, many expressed doubts. “Any student can give up beer, but they have a hard time giving up Facebook,” he notes.

Yet the students who do enroll find that living without the Internet makes a profound difference in their lives. McDaniel, who has taught the class before, says forgoing digital devices forces people to become more disciplined and more focused. “Every student who has taken this class has said without exception that they have done better in their other classes, and they have been able to focus more,” he states. “This is the best thing for their work they have ever done.”

Taking a Break in an Energy Pod

Our ability to focus is not the only thing that is compromised by our all-hours use of digital devices. Numerous studies have shown that psychological detachment from work during non-work time is important for employee health. Disconnecting from work is also critical to stress reduction: Health care expenditures are nearly 50% greater for workers who report high levels of stress, according to the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Stress plays a role in several types of chronic health problems, especially cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders and psychological disorders.

“Being able to disconnect from work has great benefits to your health and productivity,” says Jennifer Sabatini Fraone, assistant director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family. “The issue is not so much the calls or emails after hours: It is whether or not you have control over your time. If you do not have autonomy about when you are able to switch off and on, it causes stress.”

Sabatini Fraone works with Fortune 100-level companies on health and wellness initiatives for employees. “In the knowledge economy, companies recognize that employees are their greatest resource,” she notes. “If people are drained and getting burned out, they are not bringing their best selves to work every day. It has a big effect on their creativity, their energy, their productivity and their ability to innovate.”

To that effort, many companies have instituted policies on the kinds of communication employees can engage in during non-work hours; some have also ordered their employees to take regular breaks during the workday. Last year, management at Deutsche Telekom, for instance, pledged to not expect workers to read email after business hours at certain points during the week. Six months ago, Lloyds bank in the U.K. banned all employees from traveling during the third week of every month. The move was outlined to staff in a memo that read: “This will improve colleagues’ work/life balance. It will also help to reduce costs significantly.” (Since the travel ban was put in place, 70,000 fewer trips have been taken.) Meanwhile, Google, in a bid to create the “healthiest and happiest workforce on the planet,” launched a program focused on employees’ emotional well-being, which includes the installation of recharging spaces — or energy pods — within the office for 20- or 30-minute breaks.

Even countries are starting to get in on the act: Last month, Brazil introduced a law requiring companies to pay overtime to workers who make or receive work phone calls or emails outside of office hours. The legislation recognizes emails sent to employees by their employers as “direct orders”; employees who respond to those orders outside of regular work hours are therefore entitled to overtime.

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The law, which was approved by President Dilma Rousseff in December, is already drawing negative reaction from businesses. “Here in Brazil, there is a law for everything, but the problem is how to regulate it,” Claudia Sakuraba, owner of Carnaval Store, a costume shop in São Paulo with four employees, told the Financial Times recently. “What about when you send an email and, because of problems with the Internet providers in Brazil, it doesn’t arrive straight away? Or you send a text message early in the morning and, for some reason, they don’t get it until the evening? It’s not clear how this is all going to work.”

Universal prescriptions are usually well intended, but often not very practical, according to Wharton’s Friedman. “What is more useful is a customized approach,” he says. “For example, some companies have rules about not using email when you go on vacation. These companies are trying to help. But many people find that not checking email while on vacation is more stressful because they know they will face a full inbox upon their return. For some people, it’s better to take an hour a day to check in with the office before they go to the beach or go on a hike with their family. They want contact that is bounded. Flexibility is the essential element. But it’s got to be defined and driven by the employee.”

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