May 4, 2017

Has technology ruined our work-life balance?

The average employee spends 13 hours every week reading and responding to emails. That equates to 28% of the working week spent purely dealing with emails. These statistics from the McKinsey Global Institute’s report ‘The social economy: Unlocking value and productivity through social technologies’ make for sobering reading.

Even more sobering is the fact that the research is from 2012. What’s sobering about that? Imagine what the findings would say now, some five years later, with all the new technology on the scene and the massive uptake in smartphone usage. There are new apps, new platforms and new technologies that keep us ever more glued to our screens, be the screens that sit on our desks or in our pockets. Of course, it won’t be just email taking up so much time – many people and organisations now rely heavily on other mediums, such as internal messaging tools like Slack.

With smartphones and all the other mobile technologies that so many of us now possess, work is increasingly with us – at home, on the move, on holiday… it’s this dominance of technology and encroachment on peoples’ lives outside of the office that prompted a comment piece from Cary Cooper, 50th anniversary professor of organisational psychology and health at Alliance Manchester Business School.

In his piece, Cooper talked about the fact that he had recently given a talk on “mental capital and wellbeing at work”. As well as talking about the need for people to have autonomy in their roles, to have manageable workloads, to be given praise and recognition and achievable deadlines, Cooper also discussed emails and work-life balance in his talk. It is this well worn topic – that emails and social media are damaging work-life balance – that Cooper says really caught the attention of his audience and the press reporting on his talk. This is a big issue for people.

While Cooper thinks email and social media are very useful workplace enablers, communication tools that help us to do our work effectively. However, he also thinks usage has got out of hand and that the negatives now outweigh the positives. What are the negatives? According to Cooper, they are: unmanageable workloads (caused by overflowing email inboxes), an erosion of face-to-face relationships with colleague and a misuse of emails in order to avoid having to discuss tricky work-related issues face-to-face.

Also, of course, there’s the intrusion of email and other forms of social communication into people’s leisure time – evenings, weekends, holidays… employees are simply not taking the time, or being given the time, to switch off properly. Almost a third of us check work email when on holiday, for example, according to a survey by CareerBuilder.uk.

A lot of the time, these emails and other pieces of electronic communication that chew up so much time, are not worth the time spent on them. Research by email management software company, SaneBox, claims that almost two-thirds of emails in the average inbox are not important or relevant. That means only 38% are important and relevant. Want to hear some more sobering statistics, as detailed in the SaneBox’s ‘100 Email Tricks to make your inbox zero superhero’? The average professional sends and receives 122 business emails every day. By 2019, that number is predicted to have risen to 126.

The conclusion? This is not a problem that is going to go away. Even though email has declined in popularity in recent times, it is still a big part of peoples’ daily activity and there are other technologies to contend with now as well.