Work/life and our always on culture: time we switched off?

10 May 2018 | Applicable law: England and Wales


It’s Monday and it’s past 5.30pm - I dealt with work emails over the weekend, didn’t stop for a lunch break today and am working on my iPhone on the train home. My evening will at least in part be spent working and there’s already a call in the diary for tomorrow night.

For many, the first thing that they do in the morning and last thing they do at night is to check their work messages, on email, text, WhatsApp and Skype, not to mention various social media platforms such as LinkedIn, now dubbed 'Facebook for professionals'. The excessive use of email and smartphones has created the expectation of an immediate cross-platform response that was simply unimaginable before mobile phones.

Evenings, weekends and holidays are commonly spent working at least to some extent. An AXA survey(1) of 4000 UK adults in 2017 found that 59% take calls outside working hours and 55% check their work emails after going home. Similarly, the Chartered Management Institute(2) revealed earlier this year that their survey of over 1,000 managers found that 59% constantly check their messages outside normal working hours.

The impact on mental health

Unsurprisingly, this sort of lifestyle is detrimental to mental health. The same AXA study, part of AXA's Stress Index, showed that 82% of those surveyed feel stressed at least some of the time and almost a tenth feel stressed all the time. According to the CMI, it also helps to explain why 10% of managers take at least one day of sick leave each year for stress, depression or a mental health issue with the average period off work totalling 12 days.

Despite all of this work, UK productivity is over 20% lower than in France and Germany where they work shorter weeks. The cost to the economy is high too - the OECD has estimated the cost of mental health to the UK economy as £70bn or 4.5% of GDP.

Insurers have also cottoned on to the risks created by the rush to reply. At a lecture I attended by a legal insurer the message was clear - immediately responding to work emails from your sun lounger carries a real risk that the advice won’t be as well thought through as it should be.

What should be done?

So this is the new normal. Clearly, looking at the stats, it’s not good for us and it may even contribute to a substandard work product. The question then is what, if anything, can be done?

Initiatives have been run which demonstrate that making people take real time off actually increases energy, engagement and retention (see for example here ).

Forward thinking employers should be considering the way that their business operates and the way that those delivering services are functioning. Do they have an 'always on' culture? Are rest times a proper opportunity to ‘switch off’? I invite companies to be creative - consider for example…

  • can people be required to switch off at particular times?
  • are more staff needed to avoid overburdening existing workers?
  • can the volume of emails/messages be reduced?
  • would the business benefit from digital free times during the working day?
  • could a rota system be introduced to check emails out of hours?
  • what can the organisation do to help prevent mental health issues? Bring in educators, train all staff to spot problems early, have systems in place to help people quickly etc…

Taking steps to tackle the issue now is likely to pay dividends in the long run - better mental health, less risk of health and safety failings, boosted productivity and an engaged and energetic workforce. Outcomes worth investing in!

So time to think, to tackle this brave new world - and then to have a (real!) rest.

This document (and any information accessed through links in this document) is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Professional legal advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from any action as a result of the contents of this document.


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