Finding a work/life balance

Nigel Helliwell explains St Faith’s approach to email management

Did you enjoy a relaxing summer holiday?  Were you able to switch off from work and spend quality time with family and friends, or did the constant flow of emails from colleagues ensure that your mind never strayed too far from work issues?

It wasn’t that long ago, probably only ten years for most, when a holiday did exactly what it said on the tin. It was a complete break, free of electronic communication and the stresses of work. I still find it hard to believe just how quickly emails have become an integral part of our lives – at work and home. It has become the norm for many businesses to expect employees to respond to emails during their free time in evenings, weekends and even holidays. Just a quick glance around the sun beds of a hotel swimming pool will reveal people busily tapping the keyboards on their phones and tablets, the frowns on their foreheads giving away the fact that many of these messages are work related. Only last week, a newly-recruited employee of a London investment company, fresh from university, told me she received over one hundred emails a day while she was on holiday in Italy this summer. I can’t imagine that her holiday was much of a break from work. 

So why have we allowed emails to invade our private lives?  Despite the undoubted benefits of electronic communication, employers have been slow off the mark to address the work/life imbalance caused by email overload. Many companies which are awash with management systems for paper communication have been slow to respond to the tidal wave of emails and only in recent times are beginning to realise the need to introduce email management systems too.

Some employees have taken the situation in to their own hands to protect themselves from the 24/7-communication world.  The ‘out of office’ message is an invaluable tool for many and for others the simple act of switching off a phone during a family meal provides a welcomed respite from work. 

In particular, we no longer receive emails from colleagues late at night; the ones which, in between the lines, read ‘I am working harder and later than anyone else’

But it should not be left to employees to find their own solutions to the email onslaught. Employers have a responsibility for the care and welfare of their staff and if we want to genuinely look after our colleagues in the modern age we need a clear and effective system of managing emails. 

Three years ago at St Faith’s we introduced email protocols for staff. Colleagues were strongly discouraged from sending non-essential emails out of office hours. We made greater use of group email addresses to reduce the number of blanket messages. And we even piloted an email-free period of the week – Tuesday morning – when everyone was encouraged to speak or telephone rather than email. We named this period ‘Talk Tuesday’ and we laid on a whole-staff coffee break in the central dining room to promote the traditional method of passing on messages face to face!  Needless to say these measures proved popular, the trial period became permanent and over the years additional measures have been introduced to reduce and manage email traffic. 

The results of this proactive approach have been even greater than we anticipated. The previous flow of evening, weekend and holiday emails has been stemmed. In particular, we no longer receive emails from colleagues late at night; the ones which, in between the lines, read ‘I am working harder and later than anyone else’. More generally, colleagues have responded well to the email protocols and have appreciated the effort we have made to preserve their free time. 

It’s not perfect of course. It never will be in the modern age of wall-to-wall communication when technology is developing so rapidly and the demands of business and customers continue to rise.

Some companies are, however, doing what they can to manage the ever-increasing email communication and I applaud them. My wish is that more businesses take a proactive approach to this serious modern workforce issue. By doing so their employees will be less of a servant to their pinging phones, have great control over their free time and crucially, I believe, be more productive and effective at work. Everyone deserves a holiday and everyone needs a break from work. 

Nigel Helliwell is headmaster at St Faith’s, Cambridge.

www.stfaiths.co.uk    

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