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Employers make sure frazzled staff get a break

Published on Friday, 20 Dec 2013
Photo: iStockphoto

Volkswagen turns off some of its employees' e-mail accounts 30 minutes after their shifts end. Goldman Sachs is urging junior staff to take weekends off. BMW is planning new rules that will keep workers from being contacted after hours.

This surge in corporate beneficence isn't an indication that employers are becoming kinder and gentler. It's about the bottom line. After years in which the ease of instant communication via e-mail and smartphones allowed bosses to place greater and greater demands on white-collar workers, some companies are beginning to set limits, recognising that successful employees must be able to escape from work.

"Industry is now responding," says Cary Cooper, a professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University in the UK. He adds that the imperative to be constantly reachable by iPhone or tablet is taking a toll on the work delivered at the office. "Employees are turning up, but they're not delivering anything."

After seeing colleagues lose their jobs during the Great Recession, workers are more inclined to come into work, even when sick, surveys show. After hours, physical presence is replaced by the next best thing — a virtual one. Many employees fear switching off, instead deciding to work on holiday, at dinner and in bed with the help of smartphones, laptops and tablet computers.

People also have more data than ever to process — whether they ask for it or not. Information overload cost US businesses just under US$1 trillion in employee time lost to needless e-mails and other distractions in 2010, according to Jonathan Spira, chief analyst of the New York research firm, Basex.

After worrying about trimming staff numbers during the recession, employers are focusing on how to keep those who are left from burning out.

One strategy Goldman Sachs has been trying is to make people feel less at risk in their jobs. To keep junior analysts from burning out in attempts to prove their worth, the bank has decided to start hiring first-year analysts as permanent employees, instead of taking them on as contract workers. It also encourages them to not work weekends.

Work conditions in banking came under scrutiny after an intern at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in London died from an epileptic seizure that may have been brought on by fatigue.

"The HR people now talk about 'regrettable turnover'," Cooper says. "We cannot afford to lose our best people because we have fewer people. We will lose them to companies with better work-life balance, where they don't have to work 19-hour days."

It is hard for a company to control the amount of technology used in the workplace and at home as it is so integral to modern life. Volkswagen addressed the issue in a blunt, if effective, manner — by deactivating some workers' e-mail accounts once their shifts were over. Rival BMW plans to unveil new rules to foster a management culture that "values the limits of work hours and reachability". Associated Press

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