Jim Davis, Ed.M., MA

If the last thing you did before going to bed was drink a glass of wine, and the first thing you did in the morning was drink a glass of wine – and every time you were bored you reached for more wine – your loved one would stage an intervention.

Isn’t that what we do with our phones? We’re addicted. We use them to calm ourselves before bed. We roll into the day with them. They cure our boredom. For all its benefits, we are engaged in a complicated battle with modern technology – nearly 50% of adults admit that their attention span is getting worse. For some of us, that addiction has been exacerbated (or, created) because of professional expectations.

David and His Dread

Technology can be such a gift. It has enabled us to work remotely and remain connected 24/7. That doesn’t mean we should. It can also be a headache. Recently, a high-achieving client, let’s call him David, explained a slow simmering sense of dread in his remote workplace.

A startup with fewer than 10 employees, the expectation was to always be available and connected to work. When the boss had a question, it was expected to be answered immediately. It began with good intentions. For a moment, it worked. But the steady flow of Slack communication was soon gummed up with silly quips from teammates, redundancies, and questions that could have easily been Googled. Alerts were set for emails. Text messages chimed at all hours…. and he was there for it. He responded. He participated in a culture which evolved into one of “constant availability”. It did not last long.

Technology has enabled us to work remotely and remain connected 24/7. That doesn’t mean we should.

We started working together because his tank was empty. He had shut off early one day, feeling sick, and slept for about 14 hours. What he initially thought was the flu turned out to be exhaustion. He wasn’t sure how she could go on.

Initially, he wanted to learn tools for physical health and mindfulness. He was under the assumption that, even in this state of constant readiness, there was something more he should be doing.

He was right. There were definitely some health and wellness habits that had to be improved. His sleep needed to be prioritized, for one. But it wasn’t as simple as that. He also needed to consider the communication expectations of the company’s culture.

Together, we learned that it’s okay to have professional boundaries. Brian had to communicate what his boundaries were (he would no longer be available for impromptu calls at 10:00pm) and ultimately decide in this was the right job for him. Communicating the limits of one’s professional availability is essential. But it’s not easy…

“If the last thing you did before bed was drink a glass of wine, and first thing in the morning you drank a glass of wine – and reached for a glass of wine when bored – your loved ones would stage an intervention. We do this with our phones, don’t we?”

On High Alert

In cultures of constant availability, an employee’s alert system is always ‘on’. Pings and chimes and little red bubbles in the corner of an app were created to snag one’s attention – designers of these artificial engagements are experts in exploiting the neuroscience of attention. In the modern workplace, especially in remote settings, this exploitation is nearly constant.

Whether it is email, text, Slack, Zoom, or FaceTime, we feel compelled to be “on” and “ready”. In the presence of tech-alerts, our bodies release cortisol and adrenaline, which are stress hormones that trigger the “fight or flight” response (Kim & Kim, 2017). It’s happening all the time – and it’s destroying our productivity.

To cite an appropriate (though possibly overused) analogy, these are the same hormones triggered when we see a bear in the woods. Our body’s natural response to danger is to be in a heightened state of readiness… necessary while hiking through bear country, but when normalized in modern life, it erodes our physical and mental health.

A Florida State study revealed that just hearing a phone buzz was as distracting as actually using it. Their tests showed a 23% increase in errors not by engaging with a smart phone, just from hearing it chime, (Torres, 2015; Stothart et al, 2015).

High levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol, can be particularly harmful when they are consistently present. The American Psychological Association (APA) says the “constant availability” culture frequently leads to a higher incidence of burnout and a lower quality of life, largely due to the ongoing drip of cortisol. The prolonged release of cortisol can lead to an array of physical and psychological symptoms, including anxiety, fatigue, insomnia, and cognitive impairment (Mayo Clinic, 2022).

“Our body’s natural response to danger is to be in a heightened state of readiness… necessary while hiking through bear country, but when normalized in modern life, it erodes our physical and mental health.”

If we detach, we have a chance. A study by the University of California Irvine showed that after five days of not checking emails, participants had significantly improved heart rates and reported significantly less stress. In contrast, when they did check emails, their stress levels spiked, with increased heart rates and greater feelings of anxiety (Mark, 2012). 

Research has shown that chronic stress, such as that caused by a culture of constant availability, can lead to a range of health problems. It can raise blood pressure, impair our immune system, interfere with digestion, and even harm our cognitive abilities (Salleh, 2008). It also degrades quality of work. Constant availability reduces the ability to think deeply and strategically about the work that needs to be accomplished. 

It’s no good, folks.

Turn Down the Volume

Advanced cultures prioritize rest, renewal, and recovery as antidotes to stress and burnout. It’s not “soft”. It’s necessary to maintain high standards over time.

Burnout rates have been steadily increasing, with studies suggesting that 67% of major companies experienced a “burnout crisis”, even pre-pandemic. COVID exacerbated the issue, in ways that continue to evolve (Moss, 2021).

In addition to creating physical and mental boundaries from work, author and professor Brené Brown notes the value of adding a human element to workplace engagement… not just for the ethics, but in pursuit of high performance. In her book “Dare to Lead,” she writes, “if we can learn to start and end meetings on a human note, we might be better able to connect with our colleagues and produce work that’s powerful and innovative.” Brown advocates acknowledgement of the human condition. She encourages leaders to implement processes that allow employees to detach from work. Adequate social connection, rest, and break time are essential ingredients for sound decisions, productivity, and high-performance.

Advanced cultures prioritize rest, renewal, and recovery as antidotes to stress and burnout. It’s not “soft”. It’s necessary to maintain high standards over time.

One potential solution to the culture of “constant availability” is creating a distinctly separate workspace for work and personal life. Physical boundaries are crucial. This is especially important in hybrid and remote settings.

Cultures of constant availability have an adverse effect on one’s ability to perform high-level tasks, particularly ones involving creativity and collaboration. Studies have shown that when we are stressed and in a heightened state of readiness, we tend to focus our attention on what feels most urgent. It degrades our ability to accurately asses what matters. The consequence of this approach is that we miss the bigger picture, including broader, complex issues that require more reflection and development (Kim & Kim, 2017).

Leadership expert Peter Drucker reminds us again that “knowledge work requires uninterrupted periods of concentration” to achieve optimal productivity and quality (Drucker, 1967). Constant availability dismantles many of the opportunities one might have for deep and meaningful work. Unfortunately, a study at King’s College revealed that 47% of professionals believe that, due to modern workplace expectations, “deep thinking” has become a thing of the past.

“A culture of constant availability creates an unhealthy workplace. It decreases productivity – even if productivity improves in the short term, jt cannot be sustained.”

After all, productivity should not be measured by the number of hours an employee works, but the quality of the work created. Recent studies confirm that constantly checking one’s phone or email leads to decreased productivity by making it more difficult to focus and concentrate on the work task at hand (Bayer et al, 2016). Sounds obvious. Yet we do it all the time.

To reimagine the modern workplace (which is increasingly remote or ‘hybrid’) and disrupt the constant availability culture, organizations must invest in establishing time frames for “recovery” and “reflection” (Fuehrer, 2020). This means getting explicit about times when employees are not expected to be immediately available, restricting off-hour communication, and equipping people with tools, resources, and standards they need to succeed without crushing their will to show up the next day. Not more work. Better work.

Moving Forward

Does your behavior match your goal?? Companies who fail to create opportunities for employees to disconnect and recover can expect an increase in turnover alongside decreased creativity, productivity, and overall morale across the organization.

A study of Boston Consulting Group (BCG) employees found that they could handle 100-hour work weeks for about three weeks, but after that period, their productivity levels tanked, and they required several weeks of recovery to replenish their energy (Griffin, 2017). We celebrate the grind. We herald the ‘workers’, but excessive hours over extended periods of time will never be a viable long-term solution. For those aiming to develop a culture of productivity, efficiency, creativity and (hopefully) care, take time to consider communication expectations.

A culture of constant availability does not create a healthy workplace. It does not increase productivity – or if it does in the short term, cannot sustain it.

The expectation to always be “on” and connected to work via phone, instant messaging apps, and email creates a stressful internal state that drains employees and can lead to chronic stress. This sort of culture reduces employees’ ability to be creative, collaborative, and high-performing. 

Expecting constant availability seems like a good idea. It isn’t. Leaders, let’s take a step forward, out of stress and strain, back into meaningful work and (importantly) our lives.


Bayer, J. B., Guille, C., & Ritterband, L. M. (2016). The impact of brief biosocial user profiles on self-disclosure in an online peer-to-peer support community. Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association, 23(1), 116-122.

Drucker, P. F. (1967). The effective executive. Routledge.

Fuehrer, J. D. (2020). Mindfulness is Essential for Workplace Wellness and Success. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Psychology.

Griffin, R. (2017). Boston Consulting Group says it can handle 100-hour work weeks for just a few weeks a year. Here’s why (and how) they do it. Business Insider.

Kim, H. J., & Kim, Y. K. (2017). The effects of stress on job burnout: Investigating the moderating effects of social support. Journal of Health Psychology, 22(9), 1144-1154.

Mark, G., Gudith D., & Klocke U., (2012). The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress. UC Irvine, 1-4.

Mayo Clinic, (2022). Chronic Stress Puts Your Health at Risk. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037

Moss, J. (2021). Beyond Burned Out. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2021/02/beyond-burned-out

Salleh, M. R. (2008). Life event, stress, and illness. The Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences: MJMS, 15(4), 9.

Stothart, C., Mitchum, A., Yehnert, C. (2015). The attentional cost of receiving a cell phone notification. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, Vol 41(4) 893-897

Torres, N. (2015). Just Hearing Your Phone Buzz Hurts Your Productivity. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2015/07/just-hearing-your-phone-buzz-hurts-your-productivity

James (Jim) Davis works with teams and individuals on leadership development, culture enhancement, and performance psychology. He studied Human Development and Psychology at Harvard University and is a sought-after speaker, author, and coach. In 2020 he received US Marine Corps’ ‘Excellence in Leadership Award’. To work with Jim, CLICK HERE.

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