Working a 9-to-5 job has now become a thing of the past as technology has made it easily accessible for employees to be on call even after contractual work hours. The culture of being “always on” has led to a spatial flexibility of work but also has, in turn, increased supplemental work, causing our health to take a backseat to climbing up the corporate ladder. According to a recent study published in the journal Chronobiology International, checking your work email at home, or taking a call from the boss on weekends could be detrimental to your health, possibly leading to musculoskeletal, psychological, gastrointestinal, and cardiovascular problems.  

The availability of computers and smartphones has increased the amount of hours employees put in a work day. In a Pixmania survey, a multi-specialist retailer in the UK, people with access to email on their smartphones work, on average, 460 more hours a year, or two hours more than those who don’t. These employees were found to spend nine or 10 hours at work, and another two making work phone calls or sending work emails. The typical time for first checking emails is between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m., while some check their emails between 11 p.m. and midnight.

This constant availability has diminished boundaries between work and non-work domains. Home computers are being used for work-related tasks and for reading and sending work-related emails from home. "This in turn extends work hours and leads to work hours in evenings and weekends, causing interferences of work hours with biological and social rhythms for sleep, recovery, and social interaction," wrote the researchers.

Anna Arlinghaus, lead author of the study and Friedhelm Nachreiner, from the Society for Labour, Industrial and Organizational Psychological Research in Oldenburg, Germany, sought to investigate the association between work-related contacts outside of regular work hours and working in the free time with self-reported work-related health impairments. The researchers analyzed the fourth and fifth European Working Conditions Surveys, which included a total of 57,000 employed workers. These surveys are collected using in-household interviews every five years by the European Foundation for the improvement of Living and Working Conditions, which also provided access to the data.

The surveys covered many aspects of living and working conditions, such as demographic variables, work schedules, type and intensity of subjectively perceived work load, worker control over working conditions, and work-related complaints. Both of the surveys contained the question: “Does your work affect your health, or not?’’ If the participant answered yes, they were asked to identify their health issues based on the list provided, which included: musculoskeletal, psychological, gastro-intestinal and cardiovascular problems. The participants who did not report any health problems were classified into the category “no health impairments.”

“Our findings indicate that even a small amount of supplemental work beyond contractually agreed work hours can lead to health issues,” said Arlinghaus, the Daily Mail reported. The findings revealed more than half of the participants worked outside their normal hours — driven by the accessibility to check work documents on their smartphones and computer tablets. Employees who worked in the evenings and on weekends were more likely to report insomnia, headaches, fatigue, anxiety, and stomach problems.

The researchers blame the new advances in technology to have led employers to expect their employees to be available at all hours. The association with supplemental work and health issues is so strong, large companies and even governments have begun to take the initiative to address this problematic trend.

In April, France introduced rules which safeguard people working in the digital and consultancy sectors from work email outside work hours. This agreement covers only those workers who work on a daily contract after 6 p.m. Currently, France only has a 35-hour workweek and five-week vacations. Another European country to jump on the bandwagon is Germany, who is moving toward protecting its employees by passing an “anti-stress act.” This act would ban companies from contacting employees after hours. Prior to this act, it is already made illegal in Germany for employers to contact employees while they’re on vacation.

Until more governments and employers get it together and start to understand the detrimental health effects supplemental work has on its working body, here are some tips to unplug and recharge after work and relax:

1. Turn Off Your Laptop And Smartphone Before Bed

While this may seem like an impossible feat, it’s best to give yourself at least an hour of being technology-free before going to bed. This will help you unload your stress and keep any work-related matters away from bed. The blue light emitted from electronic devices can disturb sleep, preventing the release of melatonin, the sleep hormone.

2. Stay Active

You may be tempted to come home and immediately sit on the couch and watch TV for a few hours, but this can actually keep you in a work mentality. This sedentary behavior is not different than what you would do at work, so it’s best to get up, and do some physical activity. Exercise can reduce the body’s stress hormones and give you a “runner’s high,” feeling refreshed and rejuvenated.  

3. Eat Healthy

During your lunch break at work, you may reach for the most simple and convenient thing you can lay your hands on, making one too many trips to the microwave. Cooking at home can actually be therapeutic and make you focus on something else other than work. You are also more active, moving around in the kitchen, while making a healthy but tasty dish that you know you will enjoy eating.

Source: Arlinghaus A and Nachreiner F. Health effects of supplemental work from home in the European Union. Chronobiology International. 2014.