Hand holding smartphone covered in yellow and black caution tape

Once an employee exceeds 50 hours of work per week, their productivity plummets. (Matt Chase)

Features | From Pivot Magazine

Screen protection

In the age of Slack, few of us ever truly leave work at the office. If we can’t convince ourselves to log off, the government will make us.

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Like many people, I never really get home from work. If a colleague contacts me after hours or on the weekend, I answer. I check my phone at the gym, on public transit and when I’m reading or on a date, undermining my own downtime by compulsively checking for the blue blink that signals a work email or Slack message. Nobody at my office demands that I do this; I do it to myself. But here’s the thing: we all do. In most places I’ve worked, the imperative to always be connected does not come from on high—it comes from a collective buy-in that says we must, at all times, be available to each other.  

In theory, chat and collaboration tools like Slack and Basecamp were meant to cut down on email and solve our communication overload. Those two apps alone have more than 10 million users, making it clear that many of us want a more organized and efficient way to engage. But in reality, these tools only further blur the line between our jobs and the rest of our lives, enabling workaholics and encouraging “nomophobia,” a term researchers cheekily coined to describe the fear of being without our phones. As American author Adam Alter puts it in his new book, Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, “Life is more convenient than ever, but convenience has also weaponized temptation.”  

We just can’t help ourselves. Alter cites a study that used an app called Moment, which tracks smartphone use, to discover that the average person spends a quarter of their life on their phone—second only to the amount of time we spend sleeping. How does this super-use translate into work hours? Well, a 2015 American study of more than 1,000 people found that one in five employees spends more than 20 hours of their personal time each week on work-related activities. And a 2018 CPA Canada survey found that roughly 80 per cent of members in senior leadership roles checked their email at least once a day while on vacation, while nearly a quarter of them always or frequently worked seven days a week. Technology is the time-vampire that allows us to do this to ourselves.  

We’re now so helpless when it comes to regulating our on- and off-hours that the government is stepping in to save us from our screens. In March, 28-year-old Quebec MNA Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois introduced the Right-to-Disconnect Act, inspired by similar legislation that France adopted last year and that lawmakers in New York are currently considering. If passed, the private member’s bill would require companies to impose a disconnection policy—a protocol, created with employee input, that dictates when and how they communicate with colleagues outside of work hours. Some companies aren’t bothering to wait: the PR firm Edelman asks its Toronto employees not to send emails before 7 a.m., after 7 p.m. or on the weekend unless absolutely necessary.  

Critics say the legislation would slow down communication. Perhaps. But that may not be such a bad thing, if it curbs workaholic tendencies. Too often, we’re in a hyper-state of “continuous partial attention,” a term coined by former Apple and Microsoft executive Linda Stone in—wait for it—1998. “We pay continuous partial attention in an effort not to miss anything,” Stone writes. “It is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behaviour that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis.”  

In small doses, this way of being can be effective. But we are no longer in small-dose territory. As Stone puts it, “we are so accessible, we’re inaccessible.” If we constantly divide our concentration into infinitesimal bursts, we’re more prone to exhaustion and burnout. Research by Scott Schieman, who chairs the department of sociology at the University of Toronto, shows that our always-on mode can affect the amount of sleep we get, hurt our relationships, increase our stress levels and, subsequently, put us at risk of stress-related health problems like high blood pressure and bad cholesterol.  

Stressed, sick and sleep-deprived employees aren’t great for business, either. A 2014 paper by John Pencavel of Stanford University found that, once an employee exceeds 50 hours of work in a week, their productivity per hour declines sharply; their output at 70 hours, he found, hardly differed from their output at 55. A 2009 Harvard Business School study found that mandatory time off actually made employees more productive. In other words, we might feel like we’re getting ahead answering emails from bed, but we’re not actually accomplishing anything meaningful. Worse, we may be so scatterbrained that we miss essential real-life communication—who hasn’t zoned out of an important meeting to answer an email?  

Right-to-disconnect legislation may seem invasive, but it can help us. It may not stop us from working long hours, but it will at least prevent us from filling our precious off-hours with non-essential chatter and self-made distractions. It will help us put our full attention into things when we need to—and that sweet spot, research shows, is where our best, most creative work happens. Until we mandate digital time-off policies, I’ve decided to force myself to disconnect. I keep my phone off my nightstand once I climb into bed, and I recently bought an actual alarm clock—yes, those still exist—so that my missed notifications aren’t the first thing I see in the morning. It’s a small rewind in time, but it may just be the start of a revolutionary one.