Control over work-life boundaries creates a crucial buffer to manage after-hours work stress

An always-on mentality has a big downside in the form of increased job stress.

As we proceed into the 21st century, it appears as though there are new technological advances consistently, and those advances are starting to install themselves into the work environment. Technology in the Workplace is changing how we work — we are not tied to our work areas, but instead consistently have a laptop, a tablet, or a smartphone in hand.

The disadvantage: such facilities are blurring work and non-work boundaries. But that convenience comes at the expense of increased stress and mental health woes for workers unless they have control over the boundaries between work and nonwork life.

These advances are so ubiquitous and helpful that it can lead a few people to believe that representatives must be consistently on or consistently available. This sort of after-hours interruption into the home or personal life space is unfortunate, and a new study shows that an always-on attitude has a significant downside in the form of increased job stress.

A study by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which studied occupational stress and employee well-being, suggests that those who have higher “boundary control” over their work and personal lives were better at creating a stress buffer that helped protect them from falling into a negative-rumination trap.

The study surveyed over 500 full-time public school teachers in grades K-6 to measure their off-the-clock work intrusion via technologies every week for five consecutive weeks.

YoungAh Park, a professor of labor and employment relations at Illinois said, “We asked about their weekly work intrusion involving technology, specifically their after-hours work – whether they were expected to respond to work-related messages and emails immediately, and whether they were contacted about work-related issues after hours.”

Scientists found that teachers’ adoption of technological boundary tactics such as keeping work email alerts turned off on smartphones was related to lower perceptions of the weekly work intrusion.

Yihao Liu, a professor of labor and employment relations at Illinois and a co-author of the study, said, “The study builds on recent scholarship on how coping with off-hours occupational demands is becoming an increasingly important issue for workers.”

“Managing your work-life balance through boundary control is not only helpful for you and your family, but it also could be a benefit for your co-workers, because they also have to potentially read and respond to the back-and-forth messages that people are sending after the workday is done. Setting a good boundary between work and regular life is going to help more people and more stakeholders. Overall, it’s critical that individuals manage their work-life boundaries for their health and well-being, but also their productivity and their colleagues’ productivity.”

“The weekly strain symptoms involving work intrusion can be alleviated by a supervisor who supports employees’ work-life balance. Or conversely, it can be aggravated by clientele who expect employees to be always accessible and available.”

Park said“A significant point around the sense of boundary control is that stakeholders can influence employees’ control. Our study suggests that school principals can play a positive role in that their support for work-life balance was associated with the teachers’ greater sense of boundary control.”

“When you have supportive leaders who model behaviors for work-life balance and work effectively with employees to solve work-life conflicts creatively, that translates into less stress for teachers through boundary control.”

Journal Reference:
  1. Lucille Headrick et al. When work is wanted after hours: Testing weekly stress of information communication technology demands using boundary theory. DOI: 10.1002/job.2461

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