‘Technostress’ Management: Establishing work-life boundaries in a 24/7 world

Do you check your work email from home during off hours and weekends? Do you eat lunch at your desk or use break time to answer work or personal emails or texts? Are you able to detach from job responsibilities, while on vacation, or do connect remotely?

Chances are, many of us answer “yes” to at least one of these questions and are “overworking” more than is necessary to be effective in our jobs, says work-life balance expert Ellen Ernst Kossek, the Basil S. Turner Professor of Management at Purdue University’s Krannert School of Management and research director of the Susan Bulkeley Butler Center for Leadership Excellence.

And that’s not effective for either employees or employers, Kossek says.
For individuals, work-life imbalance has been linked to health issues including burnout, depression, high blood pressure, substance abuse, obesity, chronic illness and mood disorders. For employers, it can result negatively affect the bottom line due to increased health care and leave costs, higher turnover rates and absenteeism, and reduced engagement.

“Balancing the demands of work and life is becoming increasingly stressful for many workers” Kossek says. “The giant leaps being made in technology have the potential to bring increased productivity to the workplace, but they also can make it more difficult for people to experience well-being in an ‘always on’ environment.”

Although the digital revolution lets people attend to work and family across place and time, constant connectivity can be problematic. “Technology makes us instantly accessible, and tethered to work and home obligations,” she says. “Our attention is often fragmented by people and situations in our electronic space, making it hard to focus.”
What’s the solution?

The first step is identifying what type of work-life boundary management style you use to reconcile competing roles. Kossek has developed a validated assessment used in leadership training showing that most people fall into one of three categories:

  • Integrators who blur and blend the lines of their work and personal lives, often intertwining their personal and career identities.
  • Separators who create a clear division between their roles, focusing on work when at work and family when not.
  • Cyclers who volley between recurring patterns of work and non-work separation followed by intense work-life integration.

According to Kossek, there are high and low boundary control subtypes within each style that help determine whether integrating, separating or cycling supports well-being. Two people can both be integrators, for example, but “reactors” with low boundary control may feel pressured to address work matters when at home and personal matters at inconvenient times.

“One manager shared a story with me about trying to work while watching the Super Bowl with his sons,” Kossek says. “He didn’t enjoy the game and accomplished little.”
Still, “fusion lovers” with higher control over boundary blurring might happily choose to take a critical work call while on vacation to close a deal. “What matters for well-being is not integrating per se, but feeling in control of making boundary blurring choices that fit with one’s values,” she explains.

Once people understand their boundary style, they can identify strategies to increase control, such as creating time buffers between work and non-work tasks rather than scheduling activities back-to-back with a tight window. If a meeting runs over or a negative work event occurs, having a little slack helps reduce stress if you are late to get to daycare or a dinner reservation with friends.

“Many of us are overscheduled, but just putting in an extra 15 minutes between appointments can provide transition time,” Kossek says.

Another strategy is to manage the expectations of colleagues and family. Kossek recalls the experience of another manager who was always available for her colleagues. “During her honeymoon in Italy, coworkers kept calling until her exasperated groom turned off her cell phone and locked it in the hotel room’s safe.”

Kossek further encourages people to develop transition and detachment strategies to prepare themselves mentally and emotionally for moving between roles. “When driving home from work, you can actively train yourself to disconnect and focus in the moment on enjoyable non-work activities such as listening to NPR or planning an outing with family and friends.”

Drawing a weekly “time bucket” picture can help individuals examine whether they are allocating time to the roles that matter most. “People generally want to be liked and think saying ‘yes’ to every work request will help lead to promotion,” she explains. “Instead, it can leave you overcommitted, and unable to meet support your non-work needs. Don’t be afraid to say ‘no’ or ask for longer deadlines when your plate is overloaded.”
Kossek says the same strategies can also make you a more effective manager and leader, which in turn improves the health of your employer’s bottom line and enriches your well-being and personal life.

“No one should feel they have to sacrifice their family and personal life to effectively perform their job,” Kossek says. “Companies need to take steps to create an environment that is supportive of increasing employee control over work-life boundaries in ways that fit a diversity of non-work needs and values, fostering an organizational culture of workforce inclusion, well-being and sustainability.”

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