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How to avoid “always-on” fatigue

Work pressure is forcing tech staff to work from just about anywhere

A 2011 workplace survey by Robert Half found that 66 per cent of Asia Pacific employees tune into work when they are out of the office or on holiday, either to filter through work emails to ensure less stress when returning to the office or to seem available in case of an emergency at work.

Tim Hird, managing director of Robert Half Singapore and Japan, commented at the time of the report’s release, “The phenomenon of 24/7 workplace access made possible by technological advancements has led to hyper-connectivity and faster turnaround time, which is undoubtedly an advantage for businesses in this competitive world.

“However, the pervasiveness of constant work connectivity also means the erosion of personal space, higher stress levels and overall decline in the quality of life for employees.

Employers need to be realistic in their expectations to avoid overloading their staff and negatively affecting employees’ morale and work productivity.”

Indeed, the survey found a strong correlation between employees’ workplace connectivity and employers’ expectations, with a substantial 83 per cent of regional employers expecting employees to be available or contactable while on leave or out-of-office hours.

Not only is this phenomenon imposing demands throughout the organisation, it is a potentially double-edged sword for IT staff, who may feel the same pressure to tune in to work, but also to support the activities of workaholic colleagues.

It’s important to effectively manage this urge for your staff to be constantly online so they don’t become fatigued and start making decisions that may cost your organisation.

“People do check emails from home because they are enthusiastic about work, but they will also do it if they feel it is expected,” says Macquarie University organisational psychologist Dr Ben Searle.

“While it’s great when people are engaged and feel they would like to keep current with developments at work, if they don’t have a clean break they can end up more tired, more stressed and at risk of making errors.

“Often, people do it not because they want to but because they feel an expectation,” he explains. “If their boss is sending emails at 11.30 at night, even if the boss says not to respond, it is still sending a very powerful message that people are expected to concentrate on these things after hours.”

There are not a lot of things that can be done to discourage this behaviour, he says, adding that the fact that people are using devices and the Internet as a source of entertainment and social connection makes it hard for them to stop.

“We are all guilty of blurring the boundary between our professional and personal lives by giving work email addresses to friends. You’re checking to see messages from them and you see a message from your boss pop up. Social media is also blurring the bounds, but again is very difficult to constrain.

“There aren’t a lot of things that can be done about the blurring of the boundaries between professional and personal lives,” Searle explains. “However, there’s a simple solution to the problem of late night emails: managers need to lead by example! If they don’t want people coming in exhausted in the morning, they shouldn’t set an expectation that staff should be reading email at midnight.”

Managing priorities

Maureen Klinkert is the director of IT services at the University of the Sunshine Coast, a Fellow of the Australian Computer Society and the Queensland representative on the ACS National Women’s Board. She is also the president of CAUDIT (Council of Australian Directors of IT).

“Technology is all pervasive. What used to be termed e-business is now the business,” she says. “In the higher education sector there is increasing pressure on universities and a highly competitive landscape.”

This was captured in Ernst & Young’s recently released report, University of the Future, she says. The study found that new technologies, increased competition and flat-lining government funding will force universities to fundamentally reinvent themselves in the decade ahead.

“This flows on into finding novel ways of being more innovative and more productive and correlates with the demand for IT to deliver more for less funding,” she says. “Even in a university like ours which doesn’t provide distance education, we value a blended learning approach, using online materials to support the ‘sage on the stage’.

“There is a lot of pressure to produce multimedia content and students expect their lecturers to be available when they want an answer, even if it’s at midnight.

“There is a natural increase in demand and support for 24/7 access to up-to-date content. If not carefully managed, the relentless demands can result in overloaded tech staff.”

To meet this challenge, she says IT is working with the university’s senior staff to develop an enterprise architecture roadmap that will help control demand through prioritising.

“We see enterprise architecture as becoming increasingly important as we move into a world where students are able to access content online.

“We also have a good, solid governance regime, with a project management office and project and portfolio management methodologies that provide some degree of control over work and also to provide oversight of our workload so we can manage it better.”

As CIO, having an open culture where staff can raise the issue of burnout or stress is very important,” she adds. “Our management team is very protective of their staff, and our governance regime helps them and our customers decide on acceptable workloads and priorities.”

When people do take their work home, there are always security concerns around mobility and private devices, she says.

“The horse has already bolted in terms of people working on private devices both in the office and at home, which could potentially be a bring-your-own-disaster. Organisations need to protect against data leakage, and there is significant effort involved to ensure that working on private devices happens in a secure way.

“There is also a lot of pressure with the Cloud, and how we protect the organisation from threats we no longer have control over. We need to ensure information privacy and data sovereignty requirements are met and that an organisation’s digital assets aren’t leaked through cloud-based systems as well as through mobile devices and USBs.”

This supports findings by Ernst and Young’s recently released Global Information Security Survey 2012, which found that the uptake of cloud computing has doubled in Australia since 2010, with a 32 per cent increase in the number of security incidents affecting organisations.

In response, 2 per cent of organisations disallow the use of all tablets/smartphones for business use altogether, while 36 per cent only allow the use of company-owned devices and disallow use of personal devices.

“It is also becoming clear that no matter what policies an organisation might encourage, people will check their email when they should probably be spending time with their families,” she adds, saying that she frequently checks her iPad late at night. “We are genuinely concerned about its impact, but recognise that each individual also needs to take responsibility for managing their screen time.

“There is no simple answer, but as we move into a period of innovative, disruptive technologies that interfere with both our working and private lives, we each need to be able to take responsibility and switch off.

Tags Ernst & YoungYarra Valley WaterMacquarie UniversityUniversity of the Sunshine CoastRobert Half

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