Work-life balance is a key factor in building engaged, productive, and committed teams. If you want your employees to show up and do their best work, you need to make sure they have ample time to get away from work and disconnect each day.
But some employees have a hard time disconnecting. They send work emails at 11 p.m. They spend weekends grinding through a project. And even when they’ve signed off for the day, they’re still planning and thinking about work — so technically, they’re still working.
It’s HR and leadership’s job to encourage those employees to disconnect, and take the time they need to rest, recharge, and keep burnout at bay. Your employees — and your company — will benefit when this happens.
Why Disconnecting Is So Important
Before we jump into how to encourage your employees to disconnect, let’s go over why disconnecting is so important in the first place.
“The energy that people have for their lives and work is like a bank account. They need to make energy deposits by spending time doing things that enable them to ‘recharge’ in order to have energy to spend on activities like work,” said Terry McDougall, executive coach and author of Winning the Game of Work: Career Happiness and Success on Your Own Terms. “When people don’t do this, they can find themselves in an ‘overdraft’ situation, where they have no energy to expend on their work and life activities — and this is when burnout, anxiety, and depression can overwhelm people,” she said.
Essentially, if your employees don’t disconnect from work, they’re not going to have a chance to “recharge their batteries,” which can lead to disengagement, poor work performance, and all the other telltale signs of burnout. While burnout is always always a possibility for employees who don’t disconnect from their work, it’s an even bigger threat during the coronavirus pandemic, when feelings of stress, anxiety, and overwhelm are already high. This means that now there’s an even greater need for downtime.
“Data reported by the American Psychiatric Association confirms that mental health issues are notably on the rise in the face of the pandemic — concerns about health and safety, finances, child and elder care, and job security are top of mind for many,” said Rachel Cooke, founder of organization development consultancy Lead Above Noise and host of the Modern Mentor podcast. “Therefore, it is essential that employees are managing their energy, attention, and focus — all of which are finite resources — in service of balancing work with survival,” she said.
Clearly, employees need to disconnect, and as a leader, part of your job is to encourage them to do so. Let’s take a look at a few strategies you can use to encourage your employees to unplug, recharge, and avoid burnout.
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, more people than ever are working from home, and the WFH trend is likely here to stay. Global Workplace Analytics estimates that 25-30% of the workforce in the United States will be working from home multiple days per week by the end of 2021. But when your home is your office (and vice versa), disconnecting from work can be even more challenging. That’s why it’s essential to encourage your employees to set clear boundaries between their work life and their home life.
“Managers should...proactively state that they want their employees to place boundaries between work time and home time,” said McDougall.
For example, you might designate 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day as work hours. Then, encourage your employees to take the rest of their day as home hours and not engage in work-related activities during that time (e.g. by sending a company-wide email announcing a daily work “cut-off” time or discussing the importance of work/home boundaries during an all-hands meeting).
“If possible, employees should be encouraged to put away work during non-work hours by logging off work email or closing down their work laptop when work hours are over,” said McDougall.
It’s also important to let your employees know that setting work/home boundaries and taking time to engage in their personal life is not just allowed, but encouraged — and then show them you mean it by respecting those boundaries.
“Sometimes employees believe that their manager expects an immediate response to an email sent on the weekend or in normally ‘off’ hours,” said McDougall. “Managers can tell employees that responding during normal work hours is [expected] and [managers can] even schedule [their] emails to be sent only during work hours as not to over stress their employees,” she said.
As mentioned, if you want your employees to disconnect and recharge, having clear boundaries between work time and home time is a must. But every team member is different. While some of your employees may want to work their normal 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule and disconnect during the evenings, others might have children at home. For those employees, it might make more sense to disconnect during the day, when they can spend time with their families, and then tackle work projects in the evening after their kids have gone to bed.
“Give people as much flexibility as possible to determine when and how they do their work,” said Orin Davis, PhD, principal investigator of the Quality of Life Laboratory, where he consults for companies on human capital management.
If possible, let your team choose their work hours every day. If your business doesn’t allow for that kind of daily flexibility, at least try to give employees wiggle room for how and when they work a few days per week. Giving your employees the autonomy to set their own hours will allow them to both engage and disengage with their work on their own terms, which can help them find a balance that works for them.
Incentivizing Your Team to Disconnect
Some employees may need an additional incentive to turn off their work and tune into their life. If you want them to disconnect, giving them a little extra push could be all it takes.
“Offer incentives for people to go offline [and disconnect],” said Davis. Some examples of this might be raffling off a prize or an extra day of vacation time for employees who refrain from sending work-related emails after hours.
Your employees are far more likely to disconnect if they have a reason to disconnect, so be proactive and give them that motivation.
Separating Job Security Concerns
Many employees have a hard time disconnecting in the best of times. But in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and resulting widespread layoffs, disconnecting can be even more challenging.
“Now more than ever, employees are concerned about job security...There is a pervasive fear of being viewed as ‘lazy’ or unproductive,” said Cooke. Many think that in order to prove their value — and protect their jobs — they need to be working around the clock.
Unfortunately, there are no guarantees in today’s climate. While you might not be able to promise your entire organization that their jobs are safe, you can assure them that their job security isn’t reliant on them “proving” their worth or value to the company by working 24/7.
Touch base with your employees regularly to let them know that they’re doing a great job, there’s no need to hustle to keep their jobs safe, and disconnecting from work in no way makes them appear lazy, unproductive, or disengaged. In fact, disconnecting is a must if they want to stay motivated and productive at work.
Setting the Example
One of the most powerful ways HR and leadership can encourage their employees to disconnect is to lead by example.
“When leaders model behavior, it normalizes it for employees,” McDougall said.
If you want your employees to disconnect in the evenings, make it a point not to send emails past 6 p.m. If you want your employees to take a lunch break every day, sign off and enjoy a quiet, non-working lunch yourself. And let your employees know what you’re doing to disconnect from work every day. That way, they know they have the green light to do the same.
“HR and leadership can and should communicate openly about how they themselves are prioritizing self-care and rest,” said Cooke. “Sharing their strategies...helps make it seem safe for employees to follow suit,” she said.
While it’s always important to be the example for your team, it’s especially necessary now, as we work through this crisis and employees try to find a manageable work-life balance as they navigate the pandemic and stay-at-home orders.
“Managers need to step up to model behavior and signal that it’s okay for employees to put themselves and their families first in order to get through this highly unusual time,” said Davis.
Not only will taking the lead and modeling how to disconnect be helpful for your team, but as a manager and leader, it will also be helpful for you. Leadership needs to disconnect, rest, and recharge just as much as everyone else — and by acting as the example, you’ll reap the benefits of disconnecting for yourself, your team, and your entire organization.