Bug Them or Leave Them Alone?

Employers’ respect for employees’ privacy affects performance



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American employees who are constantly connected to work report the highest levels of job and life stress of any time in history.

Business leaders and scholars agree that much of this stress is a result of mismanaging the boundaries between work and home life. The reasons are many, including increased globalization, a more rapid pace of change and the growing emphasis on working remotely. Also, advances in communication technology — from ever-present smartphones to easy video conferencing — lead to employees and supervisors being in seemingly constant contact and create what many describe as a “24/7 workforce.”

My research team and I recently developed a study designed to examine the role of privacy away from work on employee stress and wellbeing to further understand employee-employer boundaries.

Approximately 500 administrative and professional employees were asked the extent to which leaders at work respected their privacy while away from work. As examples, employees were asked to indicate the extent to which their boss “understands that I have a life away from work” and, conversely, “thinks I am on call 24/7.”
When compared to employees reporting high levels of privacy, those indicating low levels also were:

  • 40 percent more likely to feel overwhelmed with too many tasks.
  • 31 percent more likely to observe boss moodiness.
  • 18 percent less likely to help others at work who asked for assistance.

Those same employees also reported:

  • 28 percent higher levels of co-worker threat behavior.
  • 23 percent higher levels of job and life burnout.
  • 23 percent higher levels of job-search activity at work.
  • 20 percent higher levels of work anxiety, both on the job and at home.
  • 15 percent higher levels of frustration with others and company expectations.

Overall, employees with low-privacy relationships indicated they did not have the level of control they needed to focus on work and give the same level of attention to other aspects of their lives. In fact, one 34-year-old accountant said, “I hate the fact that managers think they can dictate how I live my life away from work.”

Why are some employees treated respectfully during non-work hours, while others are subject to the whims of supervisors? Our study found that high- and low-privacy employees differed along multiple dimensions while at work. Compared to low-privacy workers, those given more privacy reported having access to more work resources, were more confident in their ability to get others to “buy in” to their ideas and suggestions, and indicated higher levels of supervisor support, access and openness to speak candidly even when reporting unfavorable news.

These employees were not bothered because they really did not need to be. They knew what was expected of them at work and took care of it, articulated their expectations for non-work interactions, and made sure that supervisors were aware of their unique family and social obligations.

Companies exhaust incalculable resources managing the way employees and supervisors interact on the job with little concern for what goes on outside of the workday.

My advice for employees wishing to have the best of both worlds is to talk with your employer in ways that lead to favorable results. Instead of telling your boss, “Your Saturday calls are annoying,” say, “Weekends are my time to recharge so I can approach the new week enthusiastically. So unless it is an emergency, please allow me to do so.”

In addition, sitting down with your boss and collaboratively agreeing on your availability represents a type of contract both parties should acknowledge and accept.

Employees who set the boundaries rather than reacting to them benefited by seizing back some of the control often lost at work.

Employees also need to constantly monitor their stress levels, taking into account the source of the stress, how it affects their physical and psychological health, and how it affects work, home life and important relationships.

No one knows you like you know yourself, and you can hide some things from others but not yourself. Get control and help if needed.


Wayne Hochwarter is the Jim Moran Professor of Management at Florida State University’s College of Business and a professor fellow at the Australia Catholic University.

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