5 mins

Recent legislation aims to protect workers from an always-on working culture, but managers can take steps to stave off burnout without the help of lawmakers.

Earlier this year, California lawmakers took a decisive stand against always-on work culture by putting forward a bill mandating workers’ “right to disconnect” from their jobs. The bill seeks to ban employers from encroaching on the non-working hours of their staff, making those found in violation subject to steep fines. 

If California’s proposed legislation is approved into law, the US state will join the likes of AustraliaFrancePortugal, and Spain, as well as the Canadian province of Ontario, in legally protecting workers’ personal time and guarding against burnout as a result

The proposed legislation puts the concept of “telepressure” under the microscope, a term that describes workers’ sense that they must always be mindful of, and responsive to, emails and digital messages on platforms like Slack from their colleagues and superiors, even when they are off the clock. For developers – many of whom work remotely, and often across disparate time zones – clearly delineating between working hours and non-working hours is often a particularly tricky endeavor.

The challenge of maintaining boundaries on remote teams

Although telepressure has been reported by office workers since before many jobs became partly or fully remote, research suggests that remote workers may be especially prone to it. A 2021 report by NordLayer showed that employees in western nations were working an average of two and a half longer than their eight-hour workday during the COVID-19 lockdown, which is thought to be at least partly the result of diminished work-life boundaries from working remotely. 

Sehr, a New York City-based engineering manager and team lead for a global digital media company, knows the challenge of respecting remote staffers’ work-life boundaries all too well. She leads a team with members in Ukraine, Israel, Argentina, and two US time zones, and tells LeadDev that it isn’t always possible to avoid sending or receiving messages during their non-working hours. When Slack-channel discussions bring up projects that her remote team members have ownership of, those team members often want to participate, she adds, even if it’s past the official end of their workday. 

“Our stakeholders work US hours and so sometimes, if an engineer who’s worked on something sees our stakeholders asking questions on Slack or wants to respond to something, they’ll stay on late because they feel like it makes more sense for them to help than someone who didn’t work on that product, even if it’s technically their off-hours,” Sehr says. These employees are dedicated to their jobs, and high dedication has been linked to workers being more likely to initiate workplace communication during non-working hours.

While out-of-hours discussion can be an incidental pitfall of being part of a distributed, highly motivated workforce, in other workplaces it can be a byproduct of a toxic, overbearing company culture. Particularly vulnerable are those in unstable industries and with high levels of job insecurity, where workers have little recourse to push back against a boss’s demands.

“A lot of employees unfortunately have post traumatic stress disorder from the workplace and are ‘always on’ by default, even when healthy work environments are encouraged by CEOs,” says Stephanie Alston, President at BGG Enterprises, a staffing agency focused on professional placements for diverse talent in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. “Many employees are also afraid to take full advantage of flexibility because they’re so used to functioning in toxic work environments,” she says.

How managers can combat “always on” working

Even without legislation in place, there are concrete steps that managers can take to stave off telepressure in their organizations. The first step is simply acknowledging that a culture that supports workers’ work-life balance must be cultivated intentionally, particularly on remote teams.

Justina Raskauskiene, the Lithuania-based Human Resource Team Lead at Omnisend, recommends that leaders establish clear rules and boundaries about how the team works, particularly if team members are located in different time zones. 

“When companies constantly try to intervene in their workers' personal time, performance can take a hit and burnout is likely to happen,” she says. “If there are no agreements within the team, the work-life boundary blurs.” 

Similarly, “on the rare occasion that critical issues need to be solved fast and there is no one to cover for the employee” after their official working hours, Raskauskiene says that respect and acknowledgment of the employee’s time “go a long way” toward upholding the value of their personal time. Establishing clear on-call incident rotations can also help ensure that the responsibility for properly functioning systems is distributed across entire teams, and that off-hours problem-solving gets dispatched accordingly. It may also be wise for organizations to consider how frequently members of a team are alerted outside of working hours in managers’ performance evaluations. 

Finally, leaders must take charge in creating and upholding norms that encourage team members to take the time they need to recharge from their jobs. What that looks like for any particular team may vary according to the needs of the group, as well as the requirements of the organization. Some teams may wish to uphold hard boundaries around working and non-working hours. Others may find that on-call rotas do the trick for ensuring that off-hours interventions are, indeed, rare occurrences. 

Sehr’s team has adopted its own custom approach, permitting engineers to jump in during non-working hours when it makes sense to, then making sure they get those hours back. “If I see someone online off hours, we'll assess the priority of what they’re working on and whether someone else can take over,” she says. “And then if they do end up staying late, I’ll try and encourage them to start later the next day.” 

Sehr explains that this flexible approach works well for her team because it respects members’ work-life balance without diminishing their sense of agency. Her engineers care about the work that they do. Because of their deep investment, they tend to prefer being the first point of contact in case something goes wrong with their software, or at the ready to provide answers if a stakeholder has questions. 

“They don’t want to just watch it happen and be told to go away,” Sehr says.