Article published in the HR Future Magazine – 3 April 2018

Results of a broad survey on work chat groups

With the advancement of technology, we are constantly being introduced to new modes of communication, both personal and professional. Most of these are designed to make our lives easier, but what has made itself abundantly clear in my immediate social circles and further afield, is that work chat groups on platforms like WhatsApp and Slack are having a negative effect on our personal lives.

While enjoying the good company of friends or family after work or on the weekend, whether we’re playing board games, having dinner at a restaurant or braaiing in the backyard, there seems to be a constant beeping accompanying every conversation – the all too common sounds of message notifications on mobile phones. One by one, members of our party will get up to check their messages or (more often than not) if their phone is on them, they’ll mentally vacate as they stare into their laps, scrolling with tired thumbs. Almost every time this happens they return to the room or present moment a little moodier, noticeably stressed and a bit distracted. Why you ask? An afterhours work message, of course.

As an advocate of mental health at work and maintaining a work-life balance, I decided to conduct a survey to feel out the general attitude towards these work chat groups.

The survey participants comprised people working at different professional levels in a variety of industries and in a mixture of corporate, casual and agency working environments. Participants were predominantly living and working in South Africa, with a few from the UK and US. I’ve detailed some of the results below and repeated them in the infographic.

The results

A whopping 91% of people surveyed confirmed they are part of a work chat group. More alarmingly though, 81% of them receive messages after working hours with 35% of them receiving messages after 10pm!

You might advise these working professionals to simply just ignore the messages or hide their online status, but 47% of them feel guilty if they don’t respond immediately, with 29% admitting they’ll get into trouble if they don’t respond. A staggering 80% said that they receive messages when they’re off sick or on leave.

The mental health aspect of all this is that employees don’t feel like they can unplug mentally from their day job. 50% of people in the survey confirmed they struggled to disconnect from work because of these chat groups. 42% feel their work chat group makes them more anxious and 56% feel it’s affecting their relationships with family, partners, children, friends and pets.

I asked experienced Clinical Psychologist, Omega Bronkhorst from Cape Town to weigh in on the mental health implications. “I find the results really worrying as it indicates that individuals struggle to switch off and have some down time after work,” says Bronkhorst. “It is extremely important for everyone to maintain healthy boundaries in the work environment, and violation of these boundaries may affect mental and physical health. These aspects can also contribute to employee burn out and exhaustion, both of which companies should try and avoid. Employee wellness affects all parts of productivity, so for longer term productivity, it’s best to respect employee wellness regarding office chat groups. These work chat groups could affect employees work functioning and personal effectiveness at home and socially. The alarming aspect is the amount of people fearing repercussions from their employers if they do not respond to the message after hours. I would recommend that employers who enforce these ‘fears’ / ‘repercussions’ should take another look at constitutional rights as well as labour laws. It is important for an employee to know their rights and not feel intimidated or fear consequences if they do not respond. Boundaries and balance are key points to mental and physical wellness, and for companies this aids in overall productivity.

Now, here’s a little nugget for those in senior management who may be managing these groups, listen closely. 59% of people believe they’d perform better at work if their private time was respected with 62% saying that they’ll be less anxious and stressed. Doesn’t that make for a more efficient employee?

Some of the most awkward times and places these employees received work group messages included church, important family functions, a funeral, while in training, at a conference, at a doctor’s appointment, before 7 in the morning and after 12 at night.

These work chat groups can be a powerful tool that can increase productivity, improve workflow and better your business, but it goes without saying; they need to be used correctly. It’s vital that employees have the freedom to not only ignore messages after work hours without ramifications, but also to decline the invitation to join the group in the first place.

With every new means of digital communication, boundaries need to be put in place and respected, and only overstepped in the case of actual emergencies that cannot wait until the next morning. We live in a time where instant gratification is the norm, but it’s time to take a step back and remember what’s truly important and the potential impact your after-hours message has on your employee or colleague.