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The Always-On Culture Is Harming Your Company - Why It Needs to Go

More work doesn’t equal better performance – switching off pays of.

By Gustavo Razzetti

November 3, 2021

High-performance is an output, not an input. Delivering great results requires switching off.

We are working more than ever before. Long gone are the boundaries between home and work. The pandemic has also eliminated the hard stop at the end of the workday, making it more difficult to switch off.

The average employee clocked in 2.5 extra hours a day during the pandemic. This never-ending work routine is hurting remote and hybrid employees. 40% of people have experienced burnout in some shape or form.

Welcome to the "always-on" workplace culture, in which you're expected to work around the clock.  

If you switch off, people think you're lazy. If you never stop, motivation, productivity, and creativity suffer. You feel guilty if you can't be available 24/7. But just because you can always be on, doesn't mean you should be.

As bad as things have become during the pandemic, overwork has been in motion for years. The always-on mentality is a cultural thing. It promotes the opposite mindset your team needs to succeed in a hybrid, remote workplace.

It's time to permanently turn off the 'always on' work culture. Here's why.

The Problem with the Always-On Culture

Being always-on doesn't mean performing well.

It just takes one minor interruption. A peek at an email distracts you from enjoying dinner. You hit reply and your attention goes to the screen – anxiously waiting for an answer. One task takes to another and you're back in work mode. The time you're supposed to use to unwind ends increasing burnout.

Life never stops. Work never stops either. There's always something new to do or something else to take care of. Making work stop is a choice.

An always-on culture is the result of a lack of priorities, reactive behaviors, or work as escapism – for many, work is less stressful than their personal lives.

Regardless of the reasons for working long hours, overwork won't help you – or your team.

Research shows that being always on increases conflict between our work and personal lives. Reviewing emails outside of regular working hours significantly increases stress, while compulsive internet use is a symptom of workaholism.

Our unhealthy relationship with busyness is not a new problem, but an issue deeply embedded in our culture.

William James warned us about how "Many Americans had gotten into a wretched trick of overwork and overextension, which increased the frequency and severity of our breakdowns." In the Gospel of Relaxation, he argued that Americans had become accustomed to overwork, living with an inner panting and expectancy, bringing breathlessness and tension to work.

An anonymous writer observed that "The tendency of the present age is to mental overwork and the exhaustion of the brain force." Bertie Charles Forbes acknowledged how hardworking Americans are the envy of the world. Yet, they're "committing suicide by overwork."

Although those remarks were made more than a century ago, research supports how relevant they still are: long hours backfire for people and companies.

When employees are overworked and overstressed, they become unhappy and demotivated. This leads to an increase in absenteeism and turnover, harming productivity.

One study found that 40% of Americans feel anxious throughout their workday and 72% of these people admitted that this affects their work and personal lives.

The always-on culture produces harmful long-term effects, driving inequality in the workplace.

The Motherhood Penalty is the price women pay once they have a child – the gap between men's and women's wages widens. Women are penalized for not being always-on. Having a child has an immediate and lasting impact on the mother's income and career growth – but not the father's.

The motherhood penalty is visible even in family-friendly Denmark, where both parents are entitled to paid leave.

Working from home has blurred the boundaries between home and work, making it more difficult for women to switch off.

65% of working women believe the pandemic has made things worse for them, according to the Women at Work survey. The majority feels burnt out and more than a third said they've thought about quitting their job over the past year. These factors have led to women feeling less ambitious about their careers.

Balancing work and family obligations has become an uphill battle, especially for those mothers who lack child care or workplace support.

Women showed up as better leaders during the pandemic, providing emotional support to their team members. However, their dedication wasn't reciprocated by their own (male) managers. Even worse, all that extra work went unrecognized and underappreciated – it won't lead to career advancement.

Flexibility is a must-have to unplug from work, but it's also a luxury – everyone wants it, but very few can afford it.

More Work Doesn't Equal Better Performance

There's an established belief that more hours on the job means better productivity. However, working more doesn't mean achieving more. A large body of research suggests that regardless of our reasons for working long hours, overwork does not help us or the business.

Research by Boston University shows that managers can't tell the difference between employees who actually work 80 hours a week and those who just pretend to. While managers penalized employees who were transparent about working less, the study couldn't prove that overworking employees accomplished more.

One study from Stanford University debunked the belief that working longer hours equals getting more done. It discovered that productivity declines sharply when a person works more than 50 hours a week. Working up to 70 hours doesn't make you more productive than those who put in the 55 hours.

Managers have an unhealthy emphasis on urgent stuff and not much thinking.

Most companies are constantly dealing with fire drills – usually self-inflicted wounds. Urgent has lost its real meaning. Leaders can't even explain why everything requires an immediate response. The more you try to understand what's driving the emergency, the more confused you get.

Urgent, just like busyness, has become a badge of honor – the more you wear it, the more important you become. The problem is that when everything is "urgent," nothing really is.

Employees are so busy dealing with the latest fire that they don’t have time to switch off.

Urgent has also become an easy way for insecure leaders to exercise their power. By marking every email or message "urgent," they make it all about them. Urgent no longer defines what's at stake, but the emotions of managers craving urgent attention.

Which takes me to my next point.

An always-on culture is usually about pleasing managers, not the business.

What are your criteria for establishing priorities? When I ask this question to a new client, the answer is anything but encouraging. Usually, companies have priorities but lack a method to define them. Even worse, in most cases, priorities change on the fly based on the manager's latest mood or fire-drill.

It's no surprise then that employees are continually juggling things around to please their managers rather than focusing on the customer or business.

Saying "no," challenging if something is urgent, or renegotiating deadlines are quick fixes. However, pushing back is not in most people's DNA. Saying "no" feels like a betrayal in an always-on culture.

Our decisions underline a pattern that takes us in the wrong direction.

Stanford scholar Alex Soojung-Kim Pang believes that "Busyness is not a means to accomplishment, but an obstacle to it."

As he argues in Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, when we define ourselves by our work, dedication, effectiveness, and willingness to go the extra mile, it's easy to think that doing less and peace of mind are barriers to success—precisely the opposite of what's at play.

Switching Off is Good for Both People and Business

A positive culture and higher pay are better predictors of engagement and productivity than how much people work. People don't need to be always-on to deliver more – they need to be happy. If they feel burnt out because they don't have a life or can't make ends meet, their performance will suffer.

If switching off is a good thing, why do we feel guilty about it?

For starters, there's an underlying assumption that people are lazy. People are afraid to take a vacation because they worry about being judged by their bosses.

However, high-performing teams in every arena – from sports and entertainment to the Navy SEALS – acknowledge the value of switching off. They rest hard to play hard.

Sleep is an essential part of our health, helping us feel more energized during the day, improving immune function, and helping the brain process information.

"There's not a harder job out there than being a mom or dad, working or staying at home," said Adam La Reau, a former Navy SEAL who now advises high-performing teams – from the Chicago Blackhawks to the Boston Fire Department. "There's definitely a sleep debt that could occur over time."

Sleep debt – or sleep deficit – is the difference between the amount of sleep you need and what you actually get.

In an always-on culture, resting is seen as a weakness.

Take the notion of the weekend, for example. It's a much more novel idea than most people think – it's only 80 years old in America. It wasn't until the early 1940's that the Fair Labor Standards Act mandated a 40-hour workweek and a two-day weekend.

The US is one of the few countries left in the world that doesn't have an established policy for parental leave. There's a stigma to it. One of the key negotiators in the US congress recently shared his objections – he fears it will seed an "entitlement society."

Unsurprisingly, men are more reluctant than women to take leave. They worry that taking time off will damage their reputations and careers, put their jobs in jeopardy, and affect their earning potential.

However, parental leave doesn't just benefit men, but also women. It helps them progress in their own careers.

Volvo recently announced that it is revamping paid leave to boost the number of female managers. The move goes beyond promoting. The Swedish automaker wants to positively impact the workplace. The fast is that women are better leaders – and men can learn a lot from them.

Several governments have realized the need to draw a line to protect people from always-on cultures. France established a labor law that gives employees the right to disconnect from email, smartphones, and other always-on technologies. Spain and Italy followed suit.

However, we can't apply a one-size-fits-all solution to a modern workplace that's based on flexibility.

Ireland has created a conscious code to limit work without setting rigid boundaries – it doesn't define regular working hours and considers both remote and in-office workers. Plus the challenges of working across time zones.

However, the solution may not be as straightforward as it seems. Rather than wait for the government to define best practices, switch off the always-on culture on your own terms.

How to Switch Off the Always-On Culture

Evolving your company culture is a journey – here's how to get started.

1. Redefine urgent

When everything is urgent, nothing really is. Like crying wolf, if you keep saying everything is urgent, you will be left alone when you really need help.

I've been coaching leaders and teams a lot lately, helping them address their flawed relationship with urgency. Use the following questions to kick off the conversation with your team.

Does urgent mean immediately or important? How should the team distinguish between an urgent crisis and an important request? To respond to an urgent matter, which things are you willing to let go of? Who defines what's urgent: the manager or the team?

It's vital to align on what urgent really means to you. Define criteria that are easy to observe. That something is urgent to you doesn't mean it's urgent for everyone else.

2. Prioritize how you prioritize

Your priorities can change, but how you define the things that matter the most shouldn't. Establishing criteria for prioritizing work will save your team many headaches, mainly when conflict arises.

Using even over statements is an effective way to prioritize one good thing even over another good thing. It clarifies what to do when push comes to shove.

Consider the following example:

One of the most common complaints I hear from team members is the difficulty to control their calendars. Managers usually override existing events. Team members have to miss a pre-scheduled training or meeting to adapt to their managers' changing priorities.

Here's how an even over priority could solve that tension:

Scheduled meetings even over helping my manager.

This doesn't mean that supporting their boss doesn't matter. However, it operates under the principle of first-come, first-served – if you have a meeting scheduled, the manager will have to wait.

You can use even over statements to clarify collaboration (asynchronous even over synchronous) or encourage people to switch off (people's wellbeing even over productivity).

Establishing clear trade-offs is a crucial step to aligning your team.

3. Clarify expected response time

"Did you get my email?" – this is one of the most common, yet unnecessary, interruptions. People assume that no response means that you missed an email. While it's often a sign of a colleague's anxiety, it also signals a lack of clear rules.

In a workplace that's remote-first, setting clear expectations prevents headaches and interruptions.

Start by defining which communication methods will be used – when and for what purposes. Example: calls for urgent issues, emails for things that require more information, Slack for chit chat or link sharing, etc.

The next step is to clarify response time expectations. Remove the need to answer immediately. In asynchronous teams, it's okay to respond within 24 hours – unless something is really urgent (see point #1).

Async communication can be slower. However, when people take their time to react, they think twice before responding. Thus, being more thoughtful and less emotional.

As Amir Salihefendić, CEO of Doist, says, "So people think before they write and it creates a much more calm environment. People can do deep work without interruptions."

For example, Buffer has established basic ground rules that define when people should use Slack and when not.

4. Enforce people to switch off

"Time Well Taken" has become a more pervasive approach. Unlimited vacations is more than a perk. From Netflix to innovation consultancy Chase Design, more and more companies have embraced the value of switching off.

However, organizations must change the culture first – they must overcome people's hesitance to switch off.

At Slack, employees are encouraged not to use – or check – the messaging app after working hours. Adobe implemented global days off so the entire company could take a break simultaneously. Investment management firm Bridgewater is mandating its employees take off at least 15 days a year.

Employees are struggling with setting boundaries and companies are taking notice.

As Bar Dea, Bridgewater's deputy CEO, told Business Insider, "This is not some top-down theory. This is an outcome of a conversation with our employees that are telling us: Here's what's important to us. Here's what's working for us."

Taking a vacation is not the only solution to combat an always-on culture. Take breaks throughout the day to eat, rest, and recharge (napping is underrated). Avoid checking your devices during breaks. Signal your mind that you are switching off, not jumping from one task to another.

Lastly, don't minimize the impact of turning off your apps' notifications – your concentration will boost immediately.

5. Set availability rules for the team

Discuss your work schedule/ availability hours with your manager and colleagues. Consider the team needs, not just your own, when proposing how you want to collaborate. Flexibility is vital to integrate individual and collective preferences.

Make clear that you'll only be checking your communication tools at certain times of the day – and encourage your team to do the same.

It's okay if setting boundaries makes you feel uncomfortable. Unfortunately, we've been wired to let others dictate how we manage our time. Model async behavior through actions. Don't be shy about reminding others about the team's agreements – encourage them to protect their schedule, too.

As Jonah Berger wrote in Invisible Influence, "The more others seem to be doing something, the more likely people are to think that thing is right or normal and what they should be doing as well."

Are you struggling with the hybrid workplace? This test will help you assess how well you are doing.

6. Does it need to be a meeting?

Default to asynchronous means encouraging people to schedule a meeting as the last resource, not the first option.

There are many alternatives to collaborate without having a meeting or Zoom call.

Create a MURAL board where people can build on each other's ideas, provide feedback, and vote – at their own time. Record a Loom video for topics that require more explanation and let people watch it when they can. Use an online poll tool like or similar to get people to vote on different options – including if they want to have a meeting or not.

Should It Be a Meeting? This interactive flowchart will make you think twice before scheduling a meeting. Not only does it challenge your thinking with questions, but it also provides more effective, simpler alternatives.

Meetings should be the last resort, not the default option. Invite team members to solve problems with written communication first. Make sure everyone's on the same page.

7. Work less, uninterrupted hours

Productivity plummets when you work long hours. It's better to have shorter, uninterrupted work sessions than being in front of the computer all day jumping from one task to another.

To accomplish your best work, you need to put in four hours a day, according to Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. You will get more done this way because you'll focus all your energy on a few tasks.

You might challenge if four hours is the right number. However, the principle stays. It's better to work fewer focused hours than eight distracted ones. You can divide those focused hours into smaller chunks, taking breaks in between to recharge.

Timeboxing is a powerful tool for default-to-asynchronous teams. Block different periods to work on different types of work – from deep thinking to more shallow stuff. If you don't protect your time, someone will steal it from you.  

Start blocking off time on your calendar for deep work so people can't schedule meetings during that time. Name those blocks appropriately to make them more meaningful to you and others. Facebook employees have reported that their managers don't respect "blocked" or "do not book" slots. Instead, try using things like "Research analysis," "Collaboration session," or "Client proposal development."

The Always-On Culture Needs a Break

Overwork is a cultural issue. Switching off requires overcoming both the social stigma and limiting company norms.

Discuss this challenge with your team. Map your hybrid culture and identify the behaviors that are not serving you. Focus on the outcome, not input. Make it okay not to be always-on.

Define the new norms and model the right behavior. A happy and refreshed team is more productive than one that's burnt out.

Our personal and professional lives should work together, not against each other. A great job cannot compensate for an unhappy life – and a happy life won't make your job less miserable. The always-on culture needs to go. Switch off.

Article by Gustavo Razzetti, CEO of Fearless Culture

Gustavo facilitates courageous conversations that drive culture transformation. He is a sought-after speaker, culture consultant, and best-selling author of the book Remote, Not Distant.

Razzetti is also the creator of the Culture Design Canvas – a visual and practical method for intentionally designing workplace culture. His insights were featured in Psychology Today, The New York Times, Forbes, and BBC.

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