Why mobile email bans won't solve work-life balance problems

Mobile devices make it hard to find the right work-life balance. Banning after-hours email, as some French industries have done, isn't a smart fix.

Smartphones and tablets make it easy -- too easy -- to stay connected to our jobs 24/7. It's not good for us, and the backlash has begun.

Mobility is an obvious boon for employers and employees alike. Employers like that mobile workers can be just as productive (if not more so) when they're out of the office. With the increased flexibility that comes when employees aren't tethered to their desks, they're happier, too.

But constant connectivity also brings work-life balance problems. When you're always just a touchscreen away from your boss, colleagues and clients, it's tough to feel like you're ever really off the clock -- resulting in stress and burnout.

"That's a detriment to the employer and the employee," said Rose Stanley, work/life practice director at WorldatWork, a nonprofit human resources organization in Scottsdale, Ariz.

A new plan in France tackles this problem head-on by banning employees in certain industries from checking work email after hours. The agreement, signed by labor unions and employers' representatives in the technology and consulting sectors, says workers have a duty to stay off email outside of regular business hours. It also prohibits managers from pressuring their staffs to stay connected.

An after-hours mobile email ban would likely be welcome news for many workers here in the United States, and employers too. As one boss who sends emails in the middle of the night told The Boston Globe this week, "It's not good. I'm broadcasting that I don't have good boundaries. I'm setting unfair expectations for a nonprofit where the salaries aren't high. I'm modeling bad behavior."

But a widespread ban probably isn't realistic in the global economy, where business never stops and companies have employees, customers and partners scattered across multiple time zones. It also doesn't consider that some people do their best work outside of traditional business hours.

How to solve work-life balance problems

Employers agree on the benefits of flexible work styles for employees. An overwhelming majority said they have positive or extremely positive effects on employee satisfaction, motivation and engagement, according to a 2013 WorldatWork survey.

The results were murkier when it came to the effects on productivity; more than half of employers said it's hard to tell how much work employees get done when they're out of the office. Thirty-six percent said telecommuters are just as productive as in-office workers, but only 8% said telecommuters are more productive.

It's important to note that having a "flexible" work style doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be any boundaries between our work and personal lives. When employees and employers fail to make this distinction, that's when issues pop up. Stressed and burnt-out employees have higher rates of absenteeism and may even suffer health problems, which can in turn lead to increased healthcare costs, Stanley said.

Companies should focus less on mandating work/life balance and more on making it the accepted norm, Stanley said. Instead of writing a heavy-handed rule against after-hours email, for example, include language about respecting and valuing employees' free time in the company's mission statement.

"You don't always want to make it a policy," Stanley said. "You want to make it a culture."

This was first published in April 2014

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