Updated 04 December 2013

Companies let employees 'escape' from work

Several conglomerates have decided to set limits to help employees ease the instant communication overload via e-mails, smartphones and tablets.

Volkswagen turns off some employees' e-mail 30 minutes after their shifts end. Goldman Sachs is urging junior staff to take weekends off. BMW is planning new rules that will keep workers from being contacted after hours.

This surge in corporate beneficence isn't an indication that employers are becoming kinder and gentler: It's about the bottom line.

After years in which the ease of instant communication via e-mail and smartphones allowed bosses to place greater and greater demands on white-collar workers, some companies are beginning to set limits, recognising that successful employees must be able to escape from work.

"Industry is now responding," said Cary Cooper, a professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University, who says the imperative to be constantly reachable by iPhone or tablet is taking a toll on the work delivered at the office.

"Employees are turning up, but they're not delivering anything."

Information overload

After seeing colleagues lose their jobs during the recession, workers are more inclined to come in to work, even when sick, surveys show. 

Many employees fear switching off, instead deciding to work on vacation, during dinner and in bed with the help of smartphones, laptops and tablets.

People also have more data than ever to process whether they want it or not.

Information overload cost American businesses just under $1tri in employee time lost to needless e-mails and other distractions in 2010, according to Jonathan Spira, chief analyst of the New York research firm, Basex.

Less at risk

The cost of replacing employees who leave in search of better work conditions is also a concern.

After worrying about trimming staff numbers during the recession, employers are focusing on how to keep those who are left from burning out.

One strategy, which Goldman Sachs has been trying, is to make people feel less at risk in their jobs. That's not easy in most companies, much less so in investment banking, infamous for its competitive environment and gruelling work hours.

To keep junior analysts from burning out in the attempt to prove their worth, the bank has decided to start hiring first-year analysts as permanent employees, instead of taking them on as contract workers. It is also encouraging them not to work during weekends.

Work conditions in banking came under scrutiny after an intern at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in London died from an epileptic seizure.

The case prompted the bank to review work conditions for junior employees.

Though technology has helped boost worker productivity over the past few decades, it has come with related costs, like stress.


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