How Unpaid Digital Labor Is Harming Your Employees

Want help with your hiring? It's easy. Enter your information below, and we'll quickly reach out to discuss your hiring needs.

It’s a scenario we all know too well: You’re sitting down to dinner with your family. Your youngest is telling you about the A she got on her math test, and just as you reach across the table for a high five, your phone chimes.

It’s a work email. You know it. Your family knows it. You consider your options: A) Check it now, and risk your dinner getting cold and your family annoyed while you answer it, or B) risk missing something urgent.

What do you do?

A lot of people opt to check the email. After all, it will only take a second. The problem is that all the seconds we spend working after we’re supposed to have knocked off for the day add up: One study out of the UK found that workers put in a whopping 2 billion hours of unpaid labor in 2018 alone. It’s a serious enough problem that British politician Rebecca Long-Bailey even called for implementing “the right to ignore work emails at home.”

If the line between work and home thinned dramatically over the last decade, it evaporated completely at the onset of the pandemic. With so many of us now working from home full-time, it’s harder than ever to figure out where our jobs end and our personal lives begin.

As managers, we have a responsibility to help employees curb the time they spend on unpaid digital labor. Here’s why.

Constant Interruptions Kill Productivity

It’s tempting to ping your employees whenever a thought pops into your head, but it’s important to resist the urge. Why? For one thing, your constant interruptions make them less productive.

Every time our phones chime with a message, we’re pulled away from what we’re doing. Task switching disrupts our flow, and it can be several minutes until we settle back into a productive rhythm.

A few minutes might not seem like a lot, but one 2020 survey found that 40 percent of respondents experienced more than 10 interruptions per day, and 15 percent experienced more than 20 interruptions a day. Armed with this information, it’s easy to see how quickly all those minutes spent switching tasks can easily snowball into hours. In order to save your employees from unnecessary interruptions, consider whom you’re CC’ing before you send: Does this email directly pertain to the recipient? If the answer is no, leave them off.

Always on = Burnout

The toll of always being on is a heavy one. When we’re burdening our employees with the expectation that they answer emails at 10 p.m., we’re unwittingly contributing to burnout. A 2018 Gallup poll of 7,500 full-time employees found that “burned-out employees are 63 percent more likely to take a sick day and 2.6 times as likely to be actively seeking a different job.”

Burnout is 100 percent preventable, and establishing firm boundaries to protect your employees is one of the best ways to do it. At my company, JotForm, we delete Slack from our phones when we take time off for vacations and holidays. It’s a simple way to ensure work doesn’t creep into the time we’re supposed to be using to restore ourselves.

As the pandemic has worn on, working from home has created an especially ripe environment for burnout. One recent survey by Monster found that more than two-thirds of workers are experiencing burnout while working remotely. In spite of that, they’re not taking time off: 59 percent reported taking less time off than normal, and 42 percent weren’t planning any time off for self-care.

As employers, we have to be extra vigilant against burnout by making sure our reports know we’re here for them and that we appreciate their work. According to Gallup, employees whose managers are willing to listen to their work-related problems are 62 percent less likely to be burned out. Pay attention to the effort your team is putting in, and recognize them for it.

The Ever-Mounting To-Do List

When we’re constantly battling our inboxes or replying to messages, it eats away at our time to get anything else done. Before you know it, it’s 6 p.m., and your to-do list of important tasks hasn’t shrunk at all.

One survey from RescueTime found that 51 percent of respondents said their average time spent on communication during the workday has increased in the last 3-5 years. But nonstop communication hasn’t eased expectations. The survey also found that only 5 percent of people finish their daily tasks every day. With so much more to do, it’s no wonder that 40 percent of people report they “sometimes feel overwhelmed” by their workloads, and 21 percent say they “have to work extra to keep up.”

Elizabeth Grace Saunders, author of How to Invest Your Time Like Money, told Harvard Business Review that leaders should meet with their team members individually to communicate priorities and expectations.

“Tell them the top two or three areas where you want them to focus,” Saunders said. “The last thing you want is for someone to begin his day thinking, ‘I have seven projects to work on, where do I start?'” Voicing your priorities will give your reports a tangible idea of what they should focus on, and they won’t feel consumed by endless projects and tasks.

Create Space for Open Dialogue

With so many people working from home, workday creep is something that we as leaders must actively combat. Shared calendars can be an incredibly useful tool for your team to communicate the hours they’re available and the ones they’re not.

Remember also that conversations about time management should be ongoing, especially during the pandemic, when responsibilities outside of work are constantly in flux. Saunders also told Harvard Business Review she recommends asking your reports about the challenges they’re facing, how you can help them more effectively allocate time, and whether they need more resources.

“It’s when people don’t tell you that they’re overstretched and then don’t follow through at the last moment that leads to problems,” she said.

Lead by Example

How are you supposed to tell your employees to quit their after-hours digital labor when you’re still doing it yourself?

When I first launched JotForm, I wanted to be as productive as possible, and I thought sending emails at all hours of the day and night was the way to do it. Not only was I wrong, but I was also sending an unintentional message to my team: “I’m on, and you should be, too.”

You’re probably not sending late-night emails for the express purpose of stressing your employees out, but that’s the effect you’re having. If you really can’t wait until morning, use a scheduling tool like Boomerang to send your emails at a more humane hour.

Walking your walk is important, and not just for the example it sets. Being an effective leader means protecting your own downtime and taking care of yourself so you can continue to guide everyone else.

Aytekin Tank is founder and CEO of JotForm.

Read more in Well Being

Aytekin Tank is the founder and CEO of JotForm, a well-known online form builder. JotForm allows recruiters to create forms and collect data without writing a single line of code. Popular use cases include collecting job applications, vetting candidates, scheduling interviews, and more.