Don't let your job kill you

Last Updated Apr 12, 2017 4:10 PM EDT

For many white-collar professionals, the work day is filled with never-ending meetings, emails, phone calls and other interruptions that don’t end even outside the office. 

“It’s not the hours that get to you, it’s the unpredictability, the canceled vacations and the phone calls at restaurants,” said Amit Bhatia, a former banker at Morgan Stanley. “There are certain industries we can’t fix, and Wall Street is one of them,” he added of his decision to leave his Wall Street job to help launch a technology startup. 

Bhatia, co-founder of a search engine for jobs and internships called Tapwage, told a recent panel in New York that explored the costs of work-life conflict and ways of remedying the problem that he found it jarring to learn the same attitudes and work practices persist beyond banking.

Having less down time is more serious than it sounds, with an estimated 120,000 U.S. deaths a year attributable to chronic overwork. In fact, today’s stressful workplace is the fifth-leading cause of death in the U.S., where workplace-related health care costs rival the $174 billion spent each year on diabetes care. 

Heart disease, diabetes and depression are among the ailments facing full-time workers in the U.S., half of whom typically work more than 40 hours a week and four in 10 working at least 50 hours a week. 

Aiding the always-at-work mentality is technology that allows us to work anytime and from anyplace. Americans are working longer hours than their counterparts in most other developed countries, and more than half of U.S. workers didn’t take all of their vacation in 2015, leaving 658 million days unused.

As Sarita Gupta, executive director at Jobs with Justice and co-director of Caring Across Genertions, told the discussion organized by New America, a think tank devoted to solving public problems: “Work is stressful. The truth is that it’s a public health crisis.” 

Professional services firms are also plagued with the same trouble of having few to no barriers between work and a personal life. Noted Barbara Wankoff, executive director for diversity and inclusion at audit giant KPMG: “The client says jump, and we say how high.”

However, companies and employees can take steps to curb the threat to public health. That’s according to research by ideas42, a nonprofit behavioral science lab that studied the issue with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. 

Researchers used universal behavioral science principles to tackle some of the more glaring work-related woes. The goal was to devise ways to reduce email overload, ease the burden of inefficient meetings and long work hours, and increase restful time off. 

Workers with flexible schedules and remote work tend to work longer hours, in part because they wish to repay with hard work the perceived freedom given to them by their employer. To coordinate the varying schedules, workers relay more on email at all hours, and employees feel compelled to check email regularly, whether during or after work. 

In interviews with three organizations, researchers found “when one worker returns to work late in the evening or early in the morning, it is likely that they will email their colleagues during that window,” according to their findings. “The person working will either have to wait a longer time for a response or will interrupt the nonwork time of their colleagues who mentioned checking their email in off hours ‘just in case’ an issue requires attention.”

In reality, the researchers found no instance in which an issue needed an employees’ attention immediately when they were offline.

Suggested steps to counter email overload when away from work include using technology to schedule emails to go out during the work day or designing a prompt to make someone think twice before hitting send. A more radical idea is creating an autoresponse for off-hours email to create a new norm, signaling the employer’s belief that taking time off to rest and reenergize is more valued than burning out. 

When a co-worker sends an email during hours the organization or team has agreed should be down time, the sender would get an auto-reply from colleagues letting the sender know he or she is deviating from the norm, and that most people are otherwise occupied. 

At Tapwage, Bhatia and his colleagues discussed the problem of email overload and agreed to limit the number of emails each one sends to 15 a day. In addition, Bhatia said he generally refrains from answering emails for 24 hours because much of the time, whatever issue it contains is already resolved by the time he returns to it.

In a typical week, as much as 80 percent of workers’ time involves meetings, phone calls and responding to emails, leaving little time for actual work, according to research published in the Harvard Business Review. One solution is to schedule time for concentrated work, making it as important as meeting time. 

Employers can use technology and reminders to get workers to actively choose to schedule vacation, and they can also offer incentives such as donating to a favored charity for each day a worker disconnects. This sends the signal that rest is valued. Companies should rethink promotions and evaluations to reward work-life balance and make it known that overwork is not the expectation. 

What’s the incentive for companies to encourage their employees to take time off? One study found happy workers are 12 percent more productive, while another found well-rested employees perform better.