Taking meetings and answering emails during “off hours” has always been a challenge for office-based professionals: Do we take the call at 6 a.m., or do we decline? Should we continuously monitor our email right up until we go to bed? What do others expect of us, and are we meeting those expectations? When is it fair for us to ask others to join an off-hours call? Working from home has only added to this stress.  Now, in effect, we are always at work, whether we realize it or not.

Recent research shows the average remote office worker is putting in three-and-a-half more hours of work per week and is looking at a screen more than at any point in human history. The results of extended work hours and prolonged screen exposure are less family and social interaction, poor sleep, and, believe it or not, a reduction in productivity and quality of decision-making. In addition, extended work hours can have the knock-on effects of increasing resentment and bitterness, and decreasing overall job satisfaction, all of which increase the chances the person will leave the company. As a result, it’s critical for managers, leaders, and their companies to help their employees set, maintain, and defend reasonable work-life boundaries.

Fortunately, there are some small steps we can take to get things back on track for ourselves and for our organizations. Whether on their own or taken together, these steps can facilitate meaningful change.

Set a clear time at which you will start and end your day

Let others know that you will be “offline” during your non-working hours, but (if it’s true) will be available by phone for a “true emergency.” It might also be helpful to define clearly what constitutes a “true emergency,” as your idea might differ from theirs.

At the end of your day, leave your work behind

If your work phone or laptop is also your personal phone or laptop, turn off email alerts for your work account after hours so you don’t see the emails or pings coming in. This can help to break the Pavlovian response cycle of “see an email, read an email, respond to an email” that so many of us have unwittingly developed.

Decline meetings during off hours 

If you don’t decline these meetings, you condition other people to continue scheduling off-hours meetings, and they condition you to keep taking them. Of course, in a true-emergency scenario, it’s fine to take an off-hours meeting. If you accept an invitation for a meeting outside your working hours, it could help to politely let the organizer know that you are making an exception to your normal rule because of the importance of the meeting, the difficulty in scheduling a large group, or whatever the reason may be. 

Delay your email delivery if emailing after hours

If you choose to read an email during your off-hours time and want to get the response off your plate before you lose your train of thought, you can go ahead and respond, but delay the delivery until the next morning (in Outlook, select “Options,” click the three dots on the right side of the options tabs, then click “Delay Delivery”). The objective of this strategy is to break the off-hours cycle; it could very well be that your off-hours response back will trigger the original sender to continue working even longer, and your immediate response also unintentionally reinforces their expectation that you will respond off hours (even if you said you won’t).

Be mindful of other people’s boundaries 

When others tell you their working hours, be mindful of those boundaries, and only reach out by email or set up meetings with them outside of those hours when necessary. If you need to set a call before or after their working hours, consider reaching out before you send the invitation to see if it will work for them. If you don’t reach out beforehand, note in the invitation why you are setting an off-hours meeting — for instance, it is a time-sensitive matter, their calendar during working hours was fully blocked and you need their input, it is a large group meeting or a meeting with international attendees that are driving the time selected, etc. Start and end the meeting on time. If you send an off-hours email, either delay the delivery until the next morning or note in the subject line that no response is expected until the next day (e.g. “Subject [NO RESPONSE NEEDED UNTIL (DAY)]”). If you need a response back that evening because it is a true emergency, call the person to let them know.

Look out for new employees 

Newer employees may feel more pressure to work around the clock to “keep up” with their peers or with the workflow, which is often directionally downhill and tends to be out of their control. If you notice they’re often working during off hours, start from a position of helpfulness and concern for their well-being and gently coach them on the importance of taking downtime. This, of course, starts with modeling good behaviour. Politely ask about the deadline against which they are operating, where this work falls in the larger picture, and whether the urgency is external, internal, or self-imposed. Support your colleague if they seek help or empowerment to control their own calendars. You can also explore whether some “managing up” might be warranted; if appropriate (and preferably with the person’s permission), enroll their managers for assistance.

Applying some of these ideas, even if not all, in an incremental fashion may help to build more sustained behaviour change and improve personal and professional outcomes, not just for yourself, but within your organization.