More and more companies are embracing telecommuting – or at least allowing it on occasion. That flexibility is usually a boon for workers … but regular work-from-home’ers know that this flexibility comes with a dark side too: “tele-pressure.”
Researchers coined the term tele-pressure to describe the urge to respond to emails, texts, and voicemails as fast as you can, so that you appear connected and responsive. That leads to people doing things like interrupting evenings and weekends to respond to emails that aren’t actually urgent, or even neglecting their biggest priorities during the workday itself in order to remain continuously responsive to a never-ending stream of emails and other communications. Over time, it can lead to workers being less productive, burned out, and even experiencing health and sleep problems.
“Employees pick up on both subtle and not-so-subtle cues in the work environment that imply that fast response times are needed to be perceived as productive workers,” says Larissa Barber, a psychology professor at NIU and lead author of a new study on the tele-pressure. “This may leave employees feeling like they technically have the option of not being continuously accessible, but that unplugging—even for short periods of time—may be damaging to their careers.”
So what can you do if you’re feeling pressure to show at all times that you’re responsive and productive? These six steps may help:
- Turn off new message notifications on your phone and email so that you’re not getting distracted by the constant “answer me!” ding of every new message. Instead, check your messages several times throughout the day when you’re at a good breaking point in the rest of your work.
- Schedule work blocks for yourself, several-hour chunks of time where you’ll work distraction-free on your biggest priorities, and consciously choose to stay out of your email during those periods.
- Don’t assume that your manager expects instant responses to every email. Plenty of managers send emails in the evening or over the weekend but don’t expect responses until normal work hours. If you’re in doubt, ask your manager: “Hey, I’m assuming that it’s fine for me to wait to reply to emails sent over the weekend until I’m back at work on Monday, unless it’s an emergency. Let me know if that’s not the case.”
- Resolve to disconnect from work email altogether once your work day is over. Not every field allows this – there are some jobs that truly require you to be available and responsive at all times – but the majority don’t. Unless your job explicitly requires you to be constantly connected, try simply not checking your email over the weekend for one week’s worth of evenings and see what happens. If everything seems to go fine, try it for a second week and see what happens. Still fine? That’s probably a sign that you can truly disconnect going forward – and should.
- Remind yourself that if you don’t get an answer within a few hours every time you query a colleague, you don’t assume that person is slacking off; you assume they’re busy with something else. The same is likely true of how your colleagues think of you – and that’s doubly true if you have an established track record of getting back to people and doing good work.
- If you’re a manager, do your part to combat tele-pressure on your team by (a) creating norms around response time that make it clear instant responses aren’t expected unless something is truly urgent, (b) convey specific, non-urgent timelines in your emails when you can (such as “would you let me know by Thursday?”), and (c) explicitly telling people that you don't want them to feel pressured to prioritize email above other work or disconnecting at night and on weekends.