How harmful is “always-on” for our well-being? Technology-assisted supplemental work

Calling a colleague on the way home, finishing a presentation after dinner or checking emails before going to bed - for many employees, this is the norm rather than an exception. But to what extent does being "always on" jeopardize our well-being? And what can help us to benefit from additional work after-hours?



For most employees, smartphones, laptops, and co are an integral part of their working lives. In many professions, information and communication technologies such as E-Mail and messenger services are important instruments for getting work done and communicating with colleagues, customers, and business partners. This has undoubtedly improved the efficiency, speed, and availability of our day-to-day work.

However, this practice should be evaluated critically. Nowadays, work is not limited to official working hours, but the boundaries between work and private life are blurred. Information and communication technologies allow us to be available and carry out work-related tasks anytime and anyplace. In some professions, such as those with a lot of customer contact, this is even expected by superiors or colleagues. Researchers refer to this phenomenon as technology-assisted supplemental work (TASW). Many employees engage in TASW, such as checking emails before bed, replying to colleagues during dinner, or working on presentations late into the night. But is this behavior beneficial for us?

Kühner et al. (2023) recently published a meta-analysis (i.e., a quantitative summary of the results of several individual studies on the same question) on this question. The results suggest that TASW is negatively related to well-being. People who work in the evening often struggle to mentally switch off, have less time to recover, report sleeping problems, and feel more exhausted.

In addition, TASW can be associated with work-life conflicts. Especially, if a person has to or wants to meet private requirements (e.g. childcare, household chores, leisure activities), work and private life compete for time. This can lead to people being unhappy with their work-life balance. 

So, should TASW be avoided altogether? Not entirely. Evidence suggests that TASW is not always bad. But to benefit from extra work, it should be accompanied by constructive work-related thoughts. Working after hours can be associated with a more positive mood and fewer unfinished tasks if the work is associated with solution-oriented and constructive thinking (Eichberger et al., 2021, 2022). Those who seek solutions, interpret problems as challenges, and approach their tasks in a fundamentally positive way have fewer unfinished tasks at bedtime and are more likely to report positive feelings. In other words, more thoughts such as "To solve this task, I will do the following" or "This task is interesting" instead of "Now I have to do this too" or "I will never manage this task" are important to benefit from TASW.

However, one should not conclude that working after hours is not a problem as long as it is accompanied by constructive work-related thoughts. An "extra round" after work should remain the exception to ensure adequate rest and to protect one’s well-being. However, if intensive project phases require employees to engage in TASW, they should consciously reflect on their work-related thoughts and approach the additional work with constructive and solution-oriented thoughts.

 

Bibliography

Eichberger, C., Derks, D., & Zacher, H. (2021). Technology-assisted supplemental work, psychological detachment, and employee well-being: A daily diary study. German Journal of Human Resource Management, 35(2), 199-223. https://doi.org/10.1177/2397002220968188  

Eichberger, C., Derks, D., & Zacher, H. (2022). A daily diary study on technology-assisted supplemental work, unfinished tasks, and sleep: The role of problem-solving pondering. International Journal of Stress Management, 29(1), 61-74. https://doi.org/10.1037/str0000237

Kühner, C., Rudolph, C. W., Derks, D., Posch, M., & Zacher, H. (2023). Technology-assisted supplemental work: A meta-analysis. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 142, 103861. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jvb.2023.103861 

 

Note: This article was already reviewed and is published in the German version of In-Mind: https://de.in-mind.org/blog/post/zusatzarbeit-nach-feierabend-wie-schaedlich-ist-always-on-fuer-unser-wohlbefinden