Whenever I’ve been out to eat at a restaurant recently, I’ve noticed families, couples, and coworkers alike all glued to their phones during a meal. No, this isn’t uncommon, but stopping to really notice these people forgoing in-person communication for their phones has a powerful effect. Specifically, it’s gotten me thinking about the psychological dangers of 24-7 accessibility, and the way it’s shifted our expectations in both personal and professional contexts. Now that smartphones enable us to have constant, efficient and ongoing forms of communication with literally everyone we know, we are now always at anyone’s beck and call. The benefits are clear, but the downsides sometimes feel even clearer.
In their article, “Extended Work Availability and Its Relation With Start-of-Day Mood and Cortisol,” psychologists Jan Dettmers et. al cited research showing that technological advances such as smartphones and mobile internet access have made it easier for people to take their work home with them, resulting in larger workloads, more hours worked and increased expectations from employers (not to mention increased levels of stress hormones among employees). In other words, it’s not just that employees feel like they should be accountable to their work emails, but also that employers are expecting to reach their employees 24-7. But smartphones or not, 24-7 accessibility is not the definition of a “full-time” job.
In my own work with executives (who are arguably in the “boss” role in most contexts), I’ve heard a wide range of mixed feelings about the technology that allows them to stay connected with work, even when they are out of the office. On one hand, many who spend most of their days in meetings or on the road simply appreciate being able to get on their phone in the evenings to read company-wide emails, respond to urgent messages, and catch up with the statuses of certain projects. Others, especially those who receive a lot of emails or are particularly anxious, characterize constant smartphone use as an unfortunate obligation—a behavior that can stem from defensiveness, a fear of their potential to be paralyzed with overwhelm.
But then, there are also the individuals driven by a sense of urgency, who actually like the rush of being the first to know and respond to developments in the workplace. Still others have expressed that incessant smartphone-checking has become a compulsive, bad habit. One woman with whom I’ve worked has even likened her “OCD email refreshing” to an old habit of cigarette smoking—an unproductive, but automatic response to free-floating anxiety.
But the effects of constant phone-checking can be more pernicious than just mild malaise. Research suggests that extended availability and the associated blurring of the boundaries between work and home can have a measurably negative effect on well-being. It has been shown to affect physical health by affecting the stress hormone cortisol (which, when present in high levels, correlates with heart disease, diabetes and other chronic illness). Resentments can build when employees don’t perceive themselves as having control over their availability, and can easily contribute to both internal and interpersonal conflicts. And not only does this accessibility cause stress in and of itself, but it can also interfere with one’s ability to recover from the stress of specific work-projects; the absence of clear boundaries between “work” and “life” preclude some people from being able to adequately compartmentalize their work-related stressors.
Still, based on my own experience of working with clients over the years, it’s important to note that not everyone finds extended availability stressful. In fact, some find it energizing—and research supports this with somewhat counterintuitive findings. Those who expect work-life and home-life to be separate have been found to experience more stress when they use their phones for work matters outside of work hours, as they are forced to confront the disappointment of unmet expectations. However, those who plainly expect that they will bring some work home with them end up experiencing less stress the more they used their smartphones for work outside of the office, perhaps because they were maintaining their expectations, and thus staved off any worry about falling down on the job.
Either way, the key is being aware of if your stress triggers are related to email and what your expectations have to do with it. If you’re someone who knows that you find excessive smartphone use stressful, you’ll likely want to be more intentional about finding ways to detach outside of work hours. Here are a few ways to get started:
1. Get clear on your boss’ expectations around availability
Over the years, I’ve worked with quite a few leaders who actively emphasize their respect of boundaries to their employees. Still, what tends to happen is that employees respond to their boss’ behavior, rather than their words. So if their boss ends up writing an email after hours or on the weekend, that communicates a strong signal regardless. As a result, employees may internalize the expectation that they should also be working outside of standard hours.
If, as an employee, you find yourself in a situation in which your boss communicates a respect for boundaries with words but not with actions, find a time to address it directly. Point out the disconnect, and try to clarify expectations. Then, if your boss gives you the message that he or she legitimately doesn’t expect you to always be available, believe him or her and give yourself permission to go off-line. Period.
With that said, I’ve worked with many bosses who simply aren’t aware that they are communicating mixed messages by sending emails at all hours of the night and weekends even as they say they don’t expect their employees to respond outside of office hours. If you’re a boss who isn’t practicing what you preach in this regard, a simple fix that I’ve seen work for various clients is to save your emails to draft and send them in the morning, so as not to create confusion for your employees.
2. Unplug for small stretches of time, and schedule them if need be.
If you don’t have to be available 24-7, but do need to check messages periodically, set aside times during which you can be sure to unplug. For example, if you’re working out but use your phone to listen to music, turn off your notifications so you will be uninterrupted as you take this deliberate time for self-care. Or, if you’re having dinner with your loved ones, keep your phone in your purse – not sitting face-up beside your dinner plate. Rest assured that you’ll still be able to get to your messages later, and you’ll be a whole lot less likely to stir up emotions or conflict.
3. Limit smartphone use for business before bed.
The blue light that’s emitted from electronic devices has been shown to impair sleep by affecting our levels of melatonin, a hormone that helps control our sleep and wake cycles. And it appears that using your electronic devices for work before bed ups the ante in terms of the potential negative effects. A study out of Michigan State University found that people who used their smartphones for work purposes after 9pm were less engaged and more tired at work the next day. And the adverse effects of smartphone-use was far worse than those from watching TV, working on a laptop, or using a tablet. Although moving your phone might not be a viable option if your job necessitates that kind of availability (e.g. you are an on-call physician or IT professional), honor the times you are able to be “off-duty.” If and when you do have a night when your phone doesn’t need to be right beside you before bed, set a boundary for yourself, and put it elsewhere.
Whether it’s technology, food, or any other potentially addictive (but necessary) aspect of life, these behaviors are usually most harmful when you feel like you can’t control them. The most powerful trick is finding even the smallest ways with which you can give yourself some semblance of control, helping you feel as though your off-hours are your own, and that your accessibility can only be monitored by you, and you alone.
Interested in other holistic strategies that will make you more effective, and happier at work? Get my free Checklist for Success, with 40 Actionable Ways to Boost Your Career. Click here to get it.
We’ve all worked with someone who had difficulty managing their emotions—especially the “bad” ones like anger, fear, frustration, disappointment.
You know, the impatient boss who lashes out at employees in response to the slightest bit of bad news; the overly negative colleague who complains about almost everything in the office; the co-worker whose stress and burnout are palpable in every meeting; your supervisor who becomes hostile at the drop of a hat when he’s overworked.
As you’ve probably experienced, working around people who struggle to manage their emotional struggles independently can be pretty unpleasant, and even unbearable, if you happen to be on the receiving end of the negativity. But even if your boss’ criticisms are aimed at someone else, or you’re not the pessimistic colleague’s chosen confidant, you might still find yourself absorbing the negativity around you through osmosis.
There’s a term for this in psychology: Emotional Contagion (EC) is defined as the tendency for our moods to be influenced by the moods of those around us. Researchers Elaine Hatfield et. al. argue that this occurs because we can tend to unwittingly mirror others’ expressions, postures, etc. This can cause us to experience similar emotions to those others are experiencing. On the positive side, this is a foundational piece of empathy—when we are able to “put ourselves in another’s shoes,” in other words. Or, when we’re around someone whose happiness or enthusiasm radiates forth, their positive emotions, too, may become infectious. But this dynamic can be a real downer if we’re around someone in a bad mood and we’re unaware of a need to manage our own emotions.
In office environments, research has shown that when a team’s boss is in a positive mood, the effects tend to spread to their team members; participants showed a greater ability to coordinate and collaborate compared to groups whose leaders were in a negative mood.
So, the golden question: how is it that you develop greater awareness of your emotions in the moment so that you can (1) recognize what’s going on and (2) manage them so that they don’t unintentionally hijack your behavior?
Here are my suggestions.
1. Honor the cliché: listen to your body.
Believe it or not, we experience emotions physically. Take stress, for example. Cortisol and adrenaline (aka “stress hormones”) are released in the blood, and several effects unfold. We may begin to sweat, or feel our hearts beating faster. These symptoms may happen, too, when you’re scared or angry.
Whether or not you’ve realized your body’s responses to various emotions, they are there—so start to pay attention. You can get better at catching negative emotions early on by becoming aware of how they tend to show up for you in your body.
2. Determine your trusted colleagues, and reach out.
Find someone at work who will be real with you and let you know when you seem to be having difficulty managing your emotions. Perhaps you are excessively stressed and are exhibiting irritability in meetings. Try to think of someone in your team who could gently call you out on this, and encourage them to help you notice the strengths and weaknesses of your behavior. Even if you get defensive in the moment, I assure you that the wisdom will help you in the long-run.
3. Identify your triggers.
When you have an incident of inadequately managing strong emotions at work, try to trace it back to your triggers. Do you feel angry around certain people? Did your reaction have something to do with your internal state (e.g. not getting enough sleep, skipping meals)? Were there psychological triggers such as feeling criticized by a supervisor or, feeling overwhelmed by too many demands?
When you are able to recognize potential triggers, you put yourself in a position to know that you will need to be vigilant about applying your coping skills appropriately when those situations arise. Keeping track in a journal can be a helpful means of getting more in touch with your triggers
4. Be proactive about the situation, as uncomfortable as it may be.
If there’s a situation or person at work that’s an ongoing stressor for you and you’re avoiding it, then you might be causing more trouble for yourself, your work, and your colleagues. By avoiding what is bothering you, you’re allowing your emotions to corrode inside of you, which may end up causing resentment in the near-term, and decreasing your resilience in the long term. If you’re someone who tends to be unassertive, then explode when it gets to be too much, learning to manage conflict effectively and speak up is a more constructive approach.
5. Get enough sleep at night.
Sleep deprivation has been linked to greater susceptibility to mood disturbance. I’m sure we’ve all had experiences of being more irritable after a poor night’s sleep. While this tip is more of a preventative measure, it’s a tool to rely on always for greater mood stability, boosted immunity, heightened productivity and focus. There’s no ill effects of getting adequate rest!
Of course, many of these tips require a bit of planning in advance—so what to do if you’re stuck in a crisis-moment? The answer is simple, but not easy. 1. Try to be mindful of what’s happening in the moment. Notice your emotions bubbling up, how they’re showing up in your body, and simply take note. 2. Take a deep inhale and exhale, making sure to expand your belly (not just breathing into your chest). This will help calm the nervous system. 3. Check-in with your thoughts. Is there a way to look at the situation differently? What other explanations might there be for what’s going on?
This 3-step process itself may not be possible each and every time a tough emotion catches you off guard. But the good news is that these tools are portable and always available to you. So practice on!
Need some more help managing your emotions on the job? Click here.
The Vietnamese Zen Monk Thich Nhat Hanh said, “We humans have lost the wisdom of genuinely resting and relaxing.”
There are perhaps few environments where this rings truer than in the work world. Ironically, though, most professionals have heard time and time again that “work/life balance” is positive, and burnout isn’t—both for health and for productivity. Yet in my work as a consultant and corporate psychologist, I find that most high-achievers are resistant to the prospect of scheduling breaks during the day.
Recently, I had a coaching session with a talented but hyper-stressed retail director who I’ll call Stephanie. In addition to having a busy job and raising her kids, she was also in the midst of getting her MBA. After hearing her talk about how burnt out she felt as a result of all of her myriad responsibilities, I asked her to give me a simple description of what her day-to-day life was like. They were, she told me, a whirlwind of back-to-back meetings and calls. Lunch wasn’t a given, but when she did eat, she was usually doing something else simultaneously—answering emails, checking things off her to do list. After a commute (luckily hers wasn’t too long), she either went to class, or tended to her kids, before studying or getting work done that she hadn’t been able to attend to during the day because of non-stop meetings.
I asked if she ever took breaks to rest and recharge.
“Occasionally,” she explained, “But I always feel guilty—like I’m being lazy if I do it.”
I don’t know that “lazy” would be the first word that came to mind for anyone listening to Stephanie describe her day, yet it occurs to me that this self-assessment isn’t rational, albeit very common. In my work, I come across countless individuals who, despite intellectually knowing that a bit of rest might do them some good, cling to the notion that more work always means more productivity. But that is simply not the case—not scientifically, or intuitively. Let me explain.
If Stephanie’s perspective resonates with you, let me provide you with a bit of scientific research that might help you change your mind, even if you don’t need much convincing.
1. Breaks help you to refocus and perform tasks more effectively.
While “grinding” it out—just getting something done—might seem like the best approach when you’re strapped for time and stressed out, research suggests that singularly focusing for too long on a given task leads to being less effective at it. This phenomenon occurs because when we are presented with an unchanging stimulus for too long, the brain stops registering it. This is why, for example, you may not notice a certain odor when in the presence of it for a sustained period of time, or why you don’t tend to consciously feel your clothes on your body unless you purposefully bring your awareness to them.
In the study on this subject, participants were asked to complete a computer task for an hour. One group was given two brief breaks during the study in which they did a diversionary tasks; whereas the other groups in the study were not given such breaks. The researchers found that performance declined in the groups who were not given breaks; however, the group who had breaks showed no such decline. The lead investigator concluded that prolonged attention to a single task to reduce performance across time.
2. Breaks can increase your sense of satisfaction on the job.
In a study out of Baylor, researchers studied the effects of taking breaks in the workplace—and defined breaks to include everything from lunch breaks to socializing with coworkers, to checking non-work email. They found that employees who took what they considered “better” breaks (e.g. breaks taken earlier in the day and spent doing something “enjoyable”) reported greater job satisfaction, and even better health. The researchers also suggested that taking more short breaks throughout the day resulted in better outcomes than fewer, longer breaks. Put in layman’s terms, stepping away from your work for a well-deserved break increases your perspective, and better conditions you to recognize the parts of your job you do like.
3. Breaks can increase your job performance
In their HBR article “Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time, Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy explain that our bodies work based on ultradian rhythms —90 – 120 minute cycles that are characterized by high energy at the beginning, and low energy at the end. Our body typically gives us signals that it would like us to recharge (e.g. feeling restless, tired, or hungry), but many of us have trained ourselves to ignore these signs and to continue working.
But there is a reason our bodies give us signals. In Schwartz and McCarthy’s study of employees at 12 Wachovia banks, they found that encouraging employees to focus on intermittent recovery by having them take breaks (including power naps, going for walks, listening to music, etc.) led to a two-thirds increase in the number of employees who reported feeling more productive and better connected with their clients and customers. In addition, the group who took breaks showed a 13% greater increase in year-over-year loan revenue and a 20% greater increase in deposits compared to a control group.
So what happened to my client Stephanie? I encouraged her to experiment with taking breaks; after all, I reasoned with her, she could always go back to her current lifestyle of working around the clock if she found that prioritizing her quality of life led to a decline in her overall productivity. So, she took control of her calendar and made giving herself short breaks throughout the day a priority. She also gave herself a cutoff time during the evening after which she wouldn’t work.
The result? Let’s just say she decided not to go back to her previous lifestyle. Not only has her new schedule encouraged her to be more efficient with her allotted work-time, she also has much more energy when she is working and has found that she’s much less overwhelmed.
If you don’t take enough breaks, I encourage you to take a similar experiment to see how it affects your performance. You might just be pleasantly surprised—and remember that you can always just start by trying it out.
If you enjoy my blog, then I know you’ll love my book, “The Consummate Leader: a Holistic Guide to Inspiring Growth in Others…and in Yourself.” And, you can download the pdf version of the book straight to your tablet or computer for just $5.99!
Take your ability to inspire others to the next level with this engaging guide to leadership. Based on scientific research, my work with senior executives, and personal experiences, this book is chockfull of practical strategies and helpful exercises. Work your way through it and get ready to achieve greater success in your personal and professional endeavors.
Learn more about the book here, Then, Buy the PDF Version Here!
Most organizations have, at some point, gone through the exercise of articulating their mission, vision, and values. Some, such Twitter, Google and Southwest Airlines, are lauded for adhering to their values—keeping them top of mind when developing strategies or making decisions. But in my experience, many more organizations engage in the values exercises as a well-intentioned formality that ends up playing little to no important role. Organization values will likely end up on some hidden corner of their websites, or listed in an internal Google doc that no one ever reads after their first day of orientation. When asked, employees are probably not even unable to name the values, suggesting they have little impact.
If you’ve had a similar experience in your professional life, then you might have some skepticism about the utility of examining your own values as an individual professional. Still, I encourage you to read on, as I’ve found that periodically reflecting on them can be a powerful tool for catalyzing greater fulfillment and success in your career.
What do I mean by values? They are certainly abstract, but also integral to your daily life. Values are ideals that represent your convictions—the guiding principles that shape (or, at least should guide) your actions.
As is the case with many businesses, we, as individuals, can sometimes lose touch with our values. We may give up vegetarianism for an occasional burger even though we are environmentalists; we may give advice to someone whose beliefs we disagree with for the sole purpose of networking. Whatever the break in our values is, doing so can cause unease. And so, getting back in touch with what we believe—on and off the job—can bring a greater sense of fulfillment and meaning to our day-to-day lives.
Recently, I worked with a client I’ll call Marissa who was feeling disengaged, perhaps even bored, at work. She was just a few years into her career, and had even landed what some would describe as a “dream job.” Her job afforded her challenging work, access to senior leaders, a caring boss who was an active mentor, and real opportunities for influence. Still, after a while of dealing with a large workload, daily annoyances, and keeping up with deadlines, she had lost touch with the initial feelings of excitement that she had about her work. Instead, she unhappily found herself amongst the ranks of those who dread Monday mornings, and look forward to Friday happy hour with anticipation.
So Marissa took a step back, and reflected on her values. She realized that some of the most important values to her were achievement, service, learning, and personal relationships. And, when thinking about it, she was able to see how her current job was very much aligned with her personal values, a recognition that reinvigorated her motivation. She was learning new things and expanding her knowledge every week (sometimes every day), and felt very proud of the accomplishments she had made. Although her role didn’t allow her to work with the organization’s customers directly, she was able to see how the work she was doing contributed to making other’s lives better. Although she enjoyed her relationships with coworkers, considering her values more critically urged Marissa to realize that she was not spending enough quality time with her significant other. So she committed to spending more time on her relationship, while also appreciating the ways that her job aligned with her values. As a result of these enormous insights and very small shifts, she felt a greater and more profound connection to her daily work, and fulfillment with her life as a whole.
With greater meaning and fulfillment, comes greater engagement, and likely greater productivity and higher-quality work.
Research has even shown that getting in touch with your values, can help to combat stereotype threat, the potential decline in performance that can unwittingly occur as a result of not wanting to be seen as conforming to negative stereotypes regarding your demographic group. (For example, in research, women have been found to perform more poorly on a measure of math ability when their status as women was made salient in experiments). However, in one study, researchers found that a brief writing exercise in which women reflected on their personal values helped to mitigate the effects of stereotype threat. In other words, reflecting on your values may improve your performance.
Getting in touch with your values can also provide you an important cue—namely, that it’s time to move on if and when you determine that your values are in conflict with the work you are doing. Research has shown that when there is a mismatch between your personal values and that of your organization, you are at increased risk of burnout. Cynicism, one of the components of burnout, occurs when you feel less attached to, and engaged with, the work you are doing. If a values clarification exercise reveals to you that you are simply in the wrong job or at the wrong company, you might consider moving on.
I’ve dealt with plenty clients (and experienced it personally), who were in jobs that were mismatched to them. Once the made the decision to move on, and got themselves settled on the other side, they’ve been happier. Even those who didn’t leave voluntarily (i.e. they were fired), often felt a sense of relief and acceptance once they got over the initial shock. In retrospect, they were able to see how at least part of their under-performance was related to being disengaged or conflicted because of a values mismatch.
The easiest way to get in touch with your personal values would be to simply contemplate them. As you reflect on your life, what values are most important to you? Make a list of what comes to mind (you might want to use a journal for this exercise). If you have a hard time coming up with them, do an internet search of personal values to find a list of words to choose from. Choose 5-7 of them, and rank order them.
You might also want to sleep on it, to see if they still resonate with you after you have had a bit of a chance to consider them.
As you are engaging in the exercise, you might find that there is a disconnect between the values that are most important to you on a daily basis versus the values that you would like to be most important to you. For example, if you, like Marissa, determine that a core value in your life is getting the short end of the stick, that’s useful information! Use it to make tweaks that will bring things back into balance.
Once you have settled on your values, put them somewhere that will allow you to be reminded of them often—maybe on your nightstand, desk, computer wallpaper, or on your smartphone. They don’t need to be very conspicuous—but recording them in language can help you internalize them so you can keep in touch with the ways that your work actually does align with your values to fuel a sense of meaning, even on the days you may feel less motivated. Plus, if you determine that you are in a situation in which there is too great of a mismatch between your organization and your personal values, you can begin to make important changes that can bring a greater sense of happiness and well-being to your life.
Your values can also affect your leadership style. To find out about your’s, click here.