Employees struggle with ‘always on’ culture

Women working from home on a laptop
  • Half say they never fully switch off from work
  • Majority of young adults regularly check emails outside of working hours 
  • Number of people who have taken no sick days has risen by 17 percentage-points this year to 84%
  • More than a quarter agree that they are neglecting their physical and mental health due to being busy at work
  • The number of employees who are completely happy has almost halved 

Heightened anxiety during the Covid-19 pandemic has led to employees working longer hours and taking fewer sick days, all the while becoming less fulfilled by work and life, according to the latest analysis from Aviva1.

Aviva’s new report - ‘Embracing the Age of Ambiguity’ - explores the impact that ambiguity is having on key areas of working life, from wellbeing and work-life balance to employee-employer relationships. Research carried out in February 2020 was repeated after the Covid-19 pandemic hit, to examine the impact it has had on work and society more broadly.

The research shows the percentage of employees that have taken zero sick days over a three-month period has risen 17 percentage points since before the pandemic (67% to 84%), and more than a third (34%) said they have carried on working even when they felt unwell. 

‘Presenteeism’, albeit in a new form from traditional office definitions, has become even more noticeable since the pandemic began. The merging of ‘home’ and ‘work’, and the ongoing march of technology, is creating an ‘always on’ environment. Whether working when sick or working longer than their specified hours, this ambiguity is compounding behaviour that is detrimental to long-term employee wellbeing.

Almost half of employees surveyed (44%) say they feel like they never fully switch off from work. Inability to switch is most severe among young adults (18-24-year-olds), with 63% stating that they regularly check emails outside of working hours, up from 48% in February.  

As a result, more than half agree that they are neglecting their physical (58%) and mental (55%) health due to the pressures of work, and almost half  (43%) say that they are troubled by how much their work interferes with their personal life.

Today, the number of employees who are ‘completely happy’ has gone down by over a third: 13% in August compared to 20% in February. This is an ongoing concern for businesses, as there is an established link between wellbeing and productivity.

"Without the usual bookends of commutes or school runs to help structure the day, many employees find it hard to switch off."

Debbie Bullock, Wellbeing Lead at Aviva, comments: “The working environment can be a key driver of mental health conditions amongst the working population, so it’s no surprise that the blurring of lines between home and work has contributed towards the increasing numbers reporting mental health issues.

“Our research suggests the pandemic may have exacerbated the issue. Without the usual bookends of commutes or school runs to help structure the day, many employees find it hard to switch off. Plus, juggling work and home life in the same location has been stressful for many, with employees feeling they are never entirely at work, but never fully away from it either.

“Christmas is usually a time of year when employees can switch off, but without offices to step away from, many will struggle to detach from work. Happier employees are not only extremely important for the survival and performance of organisations, but they are also a magnet for the best talent out there. Employers should take note and listen to employee concerns and better support workplace wellbeing.”

"Employers should take note and listen to employee concerns and better support workplace wellbeing."

The pressure to be ‘always on’ can also lead to burn-out. This is a psychological, physical, and emotional state people can find themselves in when they’ve been dealing with poorly managed stress for a long time. Here are a few tips to help you and your employees take control: 

  • Set a time to finish work for the day: If you are lucky enough to have a dedicated room at home to work, leave and close the door until the morning. If not, put the work devices in a drawer, behind the sofa, anywhere out of sight. The phrase ‘out of sight, out of mind’ really does apply here.
  • Find an activity to signal the switch from work to home: This will fulfil the same function as your commute used to, helping you make the mental transition. It might be walking the dog, a YouTube exercise class, or preparing a meal – whatever suits you. 
  • Be clear about your usual working hours: Make sure others know your working hours, perhaps by putting them in your email signature or your work calendar. This helps them know when they could expect you to act and respond.
  • Model good behaviours: If you are a leader, role model these behaviours and talk about it openly with your team. You need to lead by example, not just talk a good game and then do the opposite.
  • Ditch technology sometimes: Find ways to interact with colleagues and friends and family, including some that don’t involve a video call! Pick up the phone and have a chat, so you can move around instead of being fixed in front of a screen. Even if you do use video calls, think about having some strictly social events (no work talk allowed) to help people connect.

To find out more about what employees really feel about working life today – download Aviva’s Embracing the Age of Ambiguity report now.



1 Research of 2,000 UK employees working in organisations with over 1,000 employees, conducted on behalf of Aviva by Quadrangle conducted in February 2020, and repeated in August 2020.

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