The Importance Of Switching Off: How To Manage Wellness In An Always-On Culture

John Hackston, Head of Thought Leadership at The Myers-Briggs Company, discusses ways to prevent the always-on culture from affecting wellbeing.
  • How do you manage wellness in an always-on culture? In its most recent research study, the Myers-Briggs Company looks at ways to ‘switch off’.
  • The always-on culture, which is facilitated by technology, can cause unhealthy work-life interference.
  • Speaking to Allwork.Space, John Hackston, Head of Thought Leadership at The Myers-Briggs Company, discusses ways to improve the experience and even implement a “sometimes-off culture”.

“Technology has brought about a revolution in how we communicate with each other and how we manage our work and life. Services and information are available 24/7 and we can connect with each other anytime, anywhere in the world. However, when our smartphones are always within reach and switched on, we can find it difficult to ‘switch off’.”

The above is what the Myers-Briggs Company defines as the “always-on culture” in its most recent research study “Type and the Always-on Culture”

Key Findings from the Research

  • People who were able to access work emails/calls outside of work were more engaged in their jobs, but also more stressed.
  • Those who found it difficult to switch off suffered a range of negative issues including stress, interference with home life and being unable to focus on one thing at a time.
  • People mentioned the disadvantages of the always-on culture more than the advantages.
  • The top three disadvantages of being always-on were as follows:
    • 28% said they couldn’t switch off mentally
    • 26% experienced interference with family or personal life
    • 20% reported mental exhaustion
  • The top three advantages were:
    • 17% of people mentioned keeping in the loop with what’s going on
    • 16% liked quick responses
    • 13% liked flexibility of when and where they work
  • People who worked in an organizational culture that allowed people to mentally switch off from work were less stressed.
  • Personality also played a role: those who were more practical and structured (Sensing and Judging, in MBTI terms) had a greater desire to keep home and work separate and experienced more stress in relation to being always-on, as compared to those who were more big-picture focussed and flexible (Intuition and Perceiving).
  • Strategies for managing the always-on culture fell into five broad categories:
    • Avoid technology use
    • Separate work and home 
    • Manage communications with others 
    • Engage in activities to take your mind off work
    • Practise “choiceful” technology use 

The Effects of the Always-on Culture

Speaking to Allwork.Space, John Hackston, Head of Thought Leadership at The Myers-Briggs Company, said that “the reason we decided to do this research is that it [the always-on culture] is an increasing part of our world,” arguing that “if you want to, you can have your phone by your bedside and be available 24/7.”

The research report stated that “the always-on culture can affect our wellbeing – for example, by increasing work-home interference (Derks, Duin, Tims & Bakker, 2015). Sending and receiving emails on holiday, in the evening, late at night or first thing in the morning has also been shown to contribute significantly to how stressed people are (Hackston & Dost, 2016).”

In addition, “Research has also shown that technology and internet use can have both positive and negative outcomes. For example, Quinones, Griffiths & Kakabadse (2016) found that compulsive internet use is linked to workaholism. Workaholism is associated with people being engaged and productive, but it can also interfere with other aspects of life and cause tension.”

Needless to say, the always-on culture, which is facilitated by technology, can cause work-life interference. 

Hackston added that “though the always-on culture can be used to increase a person’s empowerment by allowing people to choose when and where they work, it can also be enslaving. Because technology is always there, people are tempted to always use it, making it harder to switch off, even when one should.”

“Technology is a double-edged sword,” Hackston says, “by acting as both an enabler and a stressor.” This concept was first introduced by Quinones et al., 2016 and Jarvenpaa & Lang, 2005 and the Myers-Briggs Company’s recent research confirms that this remains the case. 

The research report argues that the double-edged sword might offer more disadvantages than advantages, and it can quickly lead to mental exhaustion. This is why people need to find a sweet spot that works for them to prevent feeling like a slave to technology. 

Hackston commented that “on the whole, people came up with more disadvantages than advantages. In fact, 10% of our sample actually said there are no advantages to the always-on culture, while only 2% said there are no disadvantages.”

Even though people who found advantages in being always on (i.e. responding quickly, staying in the loop, empowerment) reported being more engaged and satisfied at work, they also reported being mentally exhausted, more stressed, and compulsively checking their devices, making it harder for them to focus at home and work. 

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Those who aren’t as keen on the always-on culture supported their standing by saying that it leads to burnout, that they don’t have a private life, that there’s no time for their family and loved ones, and that one ends up losing friends and close relationships. 

“One of my colleagues found herself quite depressed as she read through some of the respondents’ answers; they were so negative,” Hackston added.

Managing Being Always-On and Personality Type

The research found that “there are individual differences that related to people’s personality and Myers-Briggs Indicators,” Hackston said. 

“We found that people who have sensing and judging preferences — which is the largest group of the workforce by the way — prefer to keep their work and home lives separate.”

People who have a preference for intuition and perceiving and how are more extroverted “quite like integrating work and life as they feel more constrained in conventional work environments.” 

This is why different strategies are effective for different personality types. 

Which strategy is most effective for which personality type?

  • Leaving device somewhere else. The research found that there could be evidence that “this strategy may be effective for those with an Extraversion preference, but not for those with an Introversion preference.”
  • Turning off devices. This strategy is most effective for those with a Sensing preference but not Intuition. 
  • Setting boundaries with self about tech use.  This strategy may be effective for both Sensing and Intuition preferences, but slightly more so for those with a Sensing preference. 
  • Not checking devices. The research found this strategy is most effective for those with a Judging preference. 
  • Time boxing. This strategy is most effective for those with a Feeling preference, as those using this strategy reported being more satisfied with their job than those who didn’t. 
  • Only responding if important. This strategy is also most effective for those with a Feeling preference, as those with a Thinking preference did not report a significant difference in job satisfaction or stress levels.

What Organizations Can Do

While individuals can implement these strategies based on their personality type, there are lots of things organizations can also do, Hackston added. 

For example, companies should allow people to have time where they can switch-off from work. “Two-thirds of survey respondents stated that they would like to leave work when they get home; however, only one-third of those surveyed said they felt comfortable leaving work behind.

“There’s clearly a mismatch in what people want and what the workplace culture cultivates.”

Leaders within an organization should lead by example, like not sending an email late at night unless it’s really important or not working long hours (Hackston adds that working long hours has been proven to not do any good to job performance). Senior leadership, the report states, should even sometimes advocate for the “sometimes-off culture”.

Other strategies include clearly communicating boundaries with employees, like clear expectations about technology use outside of standard business hours, educating people on the importance of switching off. 

If you’d like to figure out if you feel “always-on” and if you’d like to change that, you can take The Myers-Briggs short version of the always-on survey below.

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