The Cost of Being Constantly Available

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Victoria Turner’s submission won first place in the Storytelling Contest’s science writing category. The article earns top points for breaking down complex science into digestible — and relatable — material. The simple act of reading Turner’s essay on perpetual connectivity while working from home is enough to increase cortisol levels. Thankfully, she provides excellent advice on detachment with evidence to back it up.

As the pressures and restrictions of 2020 begin to lift, we could all appreciate some well-earned time off, but even those of us who try to unwind outside work are frustrated by the gentle chime of email at all hours. To our short-lived joy, smartphones and tablets have given us the flexibility to respond to work from anywhere, practically becoming one of the family.

Over a year after a pandemic was declared by the World Health Organization, hospital staff and other medical professionals have been stretched to their limits, and academics show increased levels of stress and fatigue, particularly in female faculty.

Those working from home often struggle to “leave the office” like they once did after finishing a long day at work. Doctors, nurses, and academics are known for a sometimes round-the-clock devotion to work, but what toll does availability take for those whose jobs require it?

A pre-pandemic study linked extended work availability with decreased calmness, mood, and energy levels. By looking at industries ranging from technical services to nursing, the study evaluated the effects of being on-call — that is, not at work, but being expected to remain available by phone for questions or customer requests.

Participants answered questions in the evening after an on-call day about how often they thought about work or how constrained their activities felt. The next morning, they were quizzed again to better understand how the previous day’s mental requirements affected their mood.

Participants marked lower moods the morning after being on-call compared to mornings after days when they were not required to be available, which the researchers believe occurs because readiness to respond makes it harder to recover from work. The possibility alone impeded recovery from work, as the effects persisted even when no calls came.

These results were strengthened by an association between psychology and physiology. Cortisol is a stress hormone, and changes in cortisol levels are associated with health problems.

While hunter-gatherers probably found these changes useful in preparing for predator attacks, today’s consensus is that the unavoidable daily stressors of modern life change cortisol levels in ways more harmful than helpful.

Normally, a person’s cortisol level rises each morning and falls over the course of the day, but stressed people tend to have different cortisol profiles. The baseline levels of cortisol in the chronically stressed remain higher overall, and the natural morning peak is quicker to rise.

(“Burnout,” heralded by fatigue and exhaustion, can occur when a stressed person’s baseline cortisol falls from the elevated levels right past the norm to unusually low levels, and the morning peak in the hormone is slower or absent.)

In this study, an individual’s morning levels of cortisol increased more quickly when participants would be on call, resembling the higher hormone levels seen in job stress. This may simply be the body’s way of preparing for the anticipated stresses ahead, the authors suggest.

However, in this study, there was wide variation in the effects of daily on-call stress for the participants. Some people experienced none at all. What accounts for this? That question has led to research on the flip side of stress, resilience. The body’s response to stress is so complicated that looking at the people who cope well with stress may give more straightforward coping strategies than working from molecular scratch.

This study, in particular, found the measurement that best accounted for an on-call person’s resilience was “detachment”.

Detachment sounds like a stiff drink poured over some disdain, but the term as used in this experiment consisted of positive answers to questions like “This evening I didn’t think about work at all.”

People who were able to detach from work even while on call were most likely to recoup their energies and avoid effects on mood and cortisol. In lieu of actually reducing work availability, practicing mental detachment from work might be the next best approach.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, employees (and employers) feel pressured into responding immediately to communications after hours. With the rapid rise of remote work for office jobs, there is a corresponding increase in the feeling that we simply cannot stop working. The home is the office, so the office becomes our home.

Email notifications and phone calls chime us through each weekend and get us searching for vacation spots deep in the forest boasting minimal service or banning cell phones altogether.

“Nonwork hours during which employees are expected to respond to work issues constrain employee behavior,” say the authors of the current study, “and cannot be considered leisure time.”

Given the present knowledge of stress’s long-term effects on our health, we have two options to consider. We can reduce job stress or maximize recovery afterwards by switching off when we are not strictly on call.

We might also consider whether being available via phone counts as a form of part-time, billable work. Some European countries have even begun trying to codify a right to disconnect from work into law.

But so long as we are jumping to answer our emails and work calendar requests, there is a steep challenge in using time off work as a space to maintain our health. As eminent stress researcher Robert Sapolsky noted in a 2012 talk at UC Berkeley, not all stress is harmful, but duration is key.

“Good stress is transient — it’s not for nothing that you don’t have roller coaster rides going for three weeks.”

Work in this post-pandemic landscape can feel like the never-ending roller coaster ride, and our breaks only give us relief when we quite literally switch off.