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IT Workers Feel Obligated to Be Available to Employers 24/7

Study shows tech workers have a need to be on call 24 hours for employers.

People are overworked. At least that was the main finding of a study conducted by Ontario-based Info-Tech Research Group.

The firm conducted a survey on its Web site asking people to define if they feel no obligation, somewhat obligated, obligated or absolutely obligated to be available to their employer virtually 24/7. Most of the respondents were in an IT role. Eighty-one percent of respondents felt obligated to some degree to be on call for the office after hours. That breaks down to 44 percent feeling somewhat obligated, 22 percent feeling obligated and 15 percent feeling absolutely obligated to be always-on for work. Only 19 percent of respondents said they feel no obligation whatsoever to be always available to their employer.

According to Carmi Levy, senior research analyst with Info-Tech, response to the study has been strong. "It confirmed what people suspected all along. It put things into stark relief. This is an issue that deserves a higher profile than it has now."

Although Levy suspected there would be a fair percentage of participants who felt obligated to be available 24/7, he was quite surprised by the actual figures. "Four out of five respondents felt there should be some degree of staying in touch with the office after hours," he says.

However, these findings do not represent a sudden new trend. Levy rightfully points out that people have always been taking work home with them. However, technology is making this behavior a larger problem. "My dad used to take papers home from the office all the time," he explains. "He would maybe spend a half hour on it and go to bed. When I go home, between my laptop, mobile phone and virtual private network, I can quite literally recreate my office on my kitchen table so that I'm doing the heavy duty, heavy lifting work at home. Employees are carrying electronic leashes with them, so they never have the opportunity to get away."

As this trend accelerates, Levy says the lines between work and home will continue to blur. There are several reasons for this, mostly related to human behavior. "There's a behavioral component to this," he states. "Humans are good at releasing new technology to make them work more efficiently but we're not dept at understanding the implications of this technology. Managers receive technology but they don't have the knowledge to set proper expectations for employees as to how the devices will be used. What happens when your manager e-mails you on the weekend? Do you have to respond right away?" Levy says it is important for managers to explain to employees exactly what the expectations are with portable electronic devices.

Another factor that has led to the increase in this trend is the stress of working in a world where the pace of business is accelerating rapidly. "A lot of this is inadvertent in that companies aren't aware [ that taking work home] is an issue. People have less time to do their work. There's a general sense among employees that this is a way to ensure their job security. They may very well be operating out of fear."

Much of this behavior could be stamped out if companies were more willing to pay attention to how they allocate resources, according to Levy. "This is an indication of overwork because if the job were properly defined, the majority of the work could be completed during regular business hours. So this means there might not be proper allocations of resources. As long as people take work home and don't complain, the companies think it's fine."

Although the study did not specifically break respondents down by industry, Levy, who specializes in financial services, says he thinks workers in that industry are particularly vulnerable to the 24/7 syndrome. Since finance relies so much on information and knowledge, it naturally lends itself to a mobile, all-hours work environment.

"Financial services has a higher percentage of knowledge workers than many other industries," he explains. "So it's more sensitive to mobile work and after-hours work. A large percentage of those in banking, insurance and securities leverage this kind of technology more than other industries. Financial services was one of the earliest adopters of BlackBerrys. Anything that can give you a competitive advantage is great for the company -- but it's not good for the employees. Financial services has been a leader in leveraging these technologies and is differentially suffering from the issues discussed in the study."

Levy says the firm conducted this study to raise the awareness level of this trend that people are overworked. "It's a sign that human resources and workflow management are not being given the respect they need. This will cost companies in the end in employee burnout, healthcare and disability because people feel stressed. It also leads to turnover. Companies need to take a look at this as a possible driver to turnover. As knowledge workers increase in importance, creating more stress for them may make your company less competitive."

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