your work-life balance depends on your manager’s, what email does to your brain, and other things to know this week

Over at Intuit QuickBase’s Fast Track blog today, I take a look at several big work-related stories in the news right now: why your work-life balance depends on your manager’s, what email does to your brain, and more. You can read it here.

{ 67 comments… read them below }

  1. danr*

    #3 reminds me of those anti-drug commercials with the fried egg. Should we just substitute email?

  2. louise*

    Losing 10 IQ points due to interruptions?! This explains so, so much about me. And my friends who are parents to toddlers.

  3. Jenny*

    #3 is utterly depressing for a secretary like me. My whole job is responding to interruptions and multitasking!

    1. Beth Anne*

      #truestory most admin jobs is solving peoples problems and multi-tasking…I however MUCH prefer dealing over email than the phone…I hate the phone….

      1. Anon for this*

        Same. Absolutely the same. I would pitch this phone out the window TODAY if someone would just let me.

    2. Frances*

      Yeah, I was just coming over here to say this might explain why I feel so much sharper mentally since I moved out of an office manager/reception position and into a job where I’m frequently able to focus on one project for an hour or two.

      I need to work on my not checking email obsessively, though.

      1. Mallory*

        Does continually clicking “refresh” on AAM to check for new comments count? If so, I’m in big trouble.

    3. Wander*

      Mine too. The times that I don’t have at least three things to do are few and far between. I don’t want to train my brain not to focus!

  4. ThursdaysGeek*

    #3 is new news?! I’ll go find something written years ago about how it takes us longer to get tasks done when we’re multitasking. It isn’t a scientific study, just an observation (about geeks specifically). But it points out how we think we’re getting more done, but actually taking longer.

    1. Vicki*

      It’s not just email (as the cartoon shows so clearly). It’s any interruptions.

      This is one of the reasons why I’m finding it difficult to hunt for a new job. Where I work (Silicon Valley technology), the cube walls are coming down. “Open Plan” offices are the current Big Thing. I already know that a usual cubicle farm has too many interruptions. I cannot work in an Open Plan environment.

      1. 22dncr*

        Yeah, heard about that, so glad I’m not there anymore! Here in Houston it’s just the big O&G (Oil & Gas) companies so far.

  5. Jess*

    The 10 lost IQ points – is that permanent or just for the duration of whatever you’re working on?

    1. Ann O'Nemity*

      I don’t think it’s permanent. Probably for the task or maybe even the day. The original study said it was the equivalent of missing a whole night’s sleep.

    2. D*

      I wonder that, too. I kind of question that finding if the author of the study asserts that it’s permanent.

      Everything else makes a lot of sense.

    3. James M*

      It’s empirical. When you’re constantly switching contexts, your brain doesn’t “load” all of the relevant information for the newest context, resulting in less accuracy in the new task.

      I’m pretty sure high-efficiency context switching is a skill (that I don’t have) one can acquire through training.

      Also, IQ is only a measure of how well a person can take an IQ test. All other applications of the statistic are circumstantial at best. This has been demonstrated by countless studies and surveys.

      1. Jamie*

        ITA with all of this – especially your last paragraph.

        I know people with much lower numbers than I who are a hell of a lot smarter. I excel in a very specific environment of taking tests in a controlled setting…which comes in handy not at all since high school. Seriously, it’s a pretty useless skill.

      2. Big Tom*

        I basically came in to say this. IQ tests aren’t reliable and psychologists can’t really come to a consensus on what intelligence even is, much less how to measure it.

        Saying that someone loses 10 points for interruptions is like when people talk about how many brain cells are killed by each beer you drink. It’s fun to quote because it’s so impossible to back up and it scares people who don’t think it through. Ultimately meaningless though.

        1. Sarahnova*

          For the record, that’s not really true. Precisely defining intelligence is tricky, yeah, and there are disagreements, but there is a stable, largely heritable domain psychologists know as “intelligence” which is predictive of a startling variety of things.
          “IQ tests” is also kind of a misnomer. The concept of IQ is largely outdated and the origjnal Stanford-Binet IQ test is now only used in a few contexts. But every test of intelligence is measured for its consistency and its ability to predict certain outcomes.

          I/O psychologist out.

    4. Mallory*

      If it were cumulative and permanent, we’d all be down to a 15 IQ by now, so it must regenerate somehow.

  6. Ann O'Nemity*

    I so agree with #1.

    I’ve found that my own manager’s work-life balance has a much bigger effect on me than whatever the overall company policy is. I work for a company that boasts about its commitment to work-life balance and flexibility. And that’s true in many departments. However, my direct manager prefers 8-5 butts in the seats and routinely emails us on nights and weekends. We’ve adapted to the manager’s preferences instead of the overall company norms. The next time I’m job searching, I’m definitely modifying the way I ask about work-life balance in the interview.

    1. GrumpyBoss*

      My last job, the boss worked 24×7. He once sent a blast email out to the entire team on Christmas day, asking us to respond when we got it. He made a spreadsheet to chart our responses and publicly flogged those that he felt took too long. I had no work/life balance under him. I was looking at my phone every 5 minutes!

      When I was interviewing for my current job, my now boss was on vacation on the date that worked best for me. “No worries” he says, come in anyways. He’ll be there. I’m thinking, “here we go again”. But I asked specifically about how much time off he took, what he did for fun, etc., during our small talk sessions. I got the responses that I was looking for, and can honestly say, I’ve never had a better work/life balance.

      I think things like this tend to be questions we tiptoe around at an interview process, but after my previous experience, I’m glad that I didn’t this time. It has worked out very well. Don’t be afraid to ask.

    2. MaryMary*

      I left my previous job specifically because of the terrible work-life balance, and I found it helpful to be specific when talking about it in interviews. Instead of “I’m looking for better work life balance,” I said “In my previous position, I worked 60-70 hour weeks on a regular basis, and more during busy periods. What kind of hours can I expect to work in this role?”

  7. Clever Name*

    #1- Exactly. My boss just left for a 2 week international vacation, and I’m really delighted. I’m delighted he’s getting a real vacation with his family, of course, but I’m delighted because that means that I don’t get the side-eye when I take time off to go on vacation.

  8. Ali*

    No. 1 was different for me with my old manager. I sometimes found that he would never step in when coverage was needed, saying he had his own plans, but would make me feel guilty or pressure me for having plans when he needed shift coverage! One time I told him I would be available until X time before I had to leave for a commitment and he was all but why? Can’t you just work later when you’re home?

    The jury is out on our new management, but hopefully it gets better…

  9. Jennifer*

    We desperately need another manager in here–the last one changed jobs in February and they still can’t seem to get on the stick about it. I think they finally put the ad out in June…good lord. And then they decided to hire someone else ahead of that one that’s a made-up position….

    1. MJ*

      My husband’s employer is doing the same thing– the manager of a different department left about 6 months ago, and that department became the responsibility of Husband’s manager. A director announced a few days ago that he’s leaving, and his people will be also be placed under this manager. That’s triple the responsibility, and a lot more direct reports because some of these teams don’t have supervisors, either. The company is taking its sweet time finding a replacement for the first manager, and has decided to reorganize departments rather than replacing the director who will be leaving soon. The poor last manager standing is tearing his hair out and pushing to hire some supervisors to ease the stress a bit, but the company won’t hear of it.

      To add insult to injury, we looked up the company on GuideStar and discovered the executives are paid $300-500k/year while the organization claims it “just doesn’t have the budget” to bring the IT employees’ salaries up to market rates. The mind boggles.

      1. Jamie*

        Yeah – that’s where you want to skimp on salaries.

        Some people really do not allocate with the end game in mind, do they?

        1. MJ*

          It’s really bizarre. They’ve got the IT infrastructure team doing truly cutting-edge work for absolutely abysmal pay. When their current project is over, everyone who worked on it will be qualified for jobs that pay literally double what they’re making now. I am baffled as to how they expect to keep anyone around– or hire anyone to replace employees who leave– if they won’t even try to get salaries to the bottom of the average range.

          The executives sure seem happy, though!

        2. AVP*

          There are so many companies and CEO’s that just don’t seem to have an “end game” in mind at all!

  10. Steve G*

    #3 is an interesting link, our society needs to focus more on that. We keep seeing in job ads that multitasking is a plus, but this article raises the point of whether that is actually a good thing, long-term. Have you ever worked with someone who is good at multi-tasking, but is also interupted by every last little thing? I never thought of it that way………….

  11. Jamie*

    I do think the 20 minute to get back into it is dependent on what you were doing and the type and length of the interruption.

    If I’m deep into complex formulas and someone pulls me away for an emergency which ends in my troubleshooting and then lecturing them about coming to IT for a paper jam or because you didn’t know mouse batteries needed to be replaced every now and then (and no, I don’t do that) then yeah – different part of my brain and it will take a little bit to get back into the zone.

    But if I’m cutting a PO and someone comes in and asks me a couple of questions, or I need to run and do something really quick it doesn’t take me 20 minutes to get back into it.

    Because if we really lost 20 minutes for every interruption regardless of type almost everyone I know would be working in negative productivity numbers every day.

    I do agree the time to get back in focus is significant for work requiring a high degree of mental energy or intellectual engagement.

    1. Mallory*

      Plus, you have to factor in seething time, depending upon how stupid the interruption was (i.e. mouse-battery replacement). Sometimes you simply cannot focus on the task at hand because the mind must take time to boggle over another’s idiocy.

      1. Vancouver Reader*

        You just have to compartmentalize that rant until you see sympathetic co-worker/friend/spouse who will sympathize. Or sometimes doing a mental headslap helps too.

    2. De (Germany)*

      Even with quite complex programming tasks, I call bullshit on an average of 20 minutes. 5 to 10, maybe, definitely not longer.

  12. Katie the Fed*

    Not to pat myself on the back too much, because truthfully I just love taking vacation, but #1 is a big part of why I use my leave and take vacations. I want to model for my team that I not only allow, but I EXPECT them to take their leave. There’s no honor in forfeiting benefits of the job. I had a boss that worked constantly and I always felt I had to. But as a manager, I feel like my employees are happier and more productive when they have a healthy work-life balance. I am too.

    Also I love taking leave. :)

    1. GrumpyBoss*

      I always say this to my team too. Nobody was ever considered a hero for not taking time off. I’ve worked places where people wore it like a badge of honor: “I lost 3 weeks of vacation last year that wouldn’t roll over! I care so much about this place, that’s why!” Uh, that doesn’t make you a hero. That makes you stupid. You wouldn’t leave 3 weeks salary sitting on the table after your employer gave it to you, would you?

      1. Katie the Fed*

        “Uh, that doesn’t make you a hero. That makes you stupid. ”

        Here here!

        Lazy bosses unite! :)

        It’s also a lot of chutzpah to think you’re so mission essential that the place won’t survive without you. It will. Other people will just have an opportunity to step up and develop. Everyone wins.

      2. Jamie*

        I agree with you wholeheartedly in theory – but in practice I’ve worked places where you wore it like a badge because it was rewarded. The financial benefits in bonus and raises for living and breathing work far eclipsed the loss of leaving some time on the table.

        It’s a mindset I struggled with a lot when I changed jobs, because hours for the sake of hours aren’t rewarded here. Yes, there are times extreme hours are needed and I do them – and twice a year I have a couple of weeks of brutal workload – but I’m expected to take the time when I can and pace myself when things are a little slower because I’ll be more ready when things amp up if I’m not already burnt out.

        My point is in some places you are considered a hero for not taking time off. It’s stupid and shortsighted, but you can’t fault people for towing the party line if they are trying to make their mark. And if you cut your teeth in that kind of environment it’s hard to shake. Not impossible, but really hard.

        And as someone who is always cashing out unused time at the end of the year, it’s not because I don’t want to take it or am not allowed to take it – but because it never seems like a good time to do so and internally I will “next month for sure” myself until the end of the year which is my most hectic time.

        I can’t take blocks of time, so trying to do it in 3-4 day weekends is hard because I don’t really relax when the office is open because I’m always tethered to email/phone. I’ve gotten good at pushing non-emergencies off until I’m back in the office, but as I am on call 24/7 I’ve completely gotten out of the habit of having downtime where I can ignore my phone. I did after surgery last year and it was absolutely surreal – I had to keep reminding myself I still had a job.

        Working toward structuring my position where I can get real time off is something we need to do – absolutely – but I do acknowledge that some of the reason it’s this way is due to my workaholic behaviors when I started. I was always available so people expect that – so it’s a matter of untangling those expectations and putting supports in place that weren’t there before.

        Reasonable and fair – to be sure – but while it’s not logical I feel it’s a sign of weakness on my part that it’s necessary. I didn’t need the time before, why do I now? Is it that big a deal to make sure my phone is docked and the volume up so it wakes me if someone needs me while I’m napping? No, but sometimes I’d like to nap without waking up in a panic that something horrible happened while I was sleeping.

        Positions like mine where the work doesn’t justify additional staff just so we can take vacation a couple of weeks a year, but the job is specific enough that you can’t just call a temp in for coverage it can be a difficult line to walk. It’s a tenuous support structure of documenting and training some co-workers on some things, having outsourced consultant on call for the others, and vendor tech support. But jobs which revolve around a lot of troubleshooting you can’t prepare for every eventuality and it can be hard to take time off.

        Not that I’m justifying my own bad habits or anything. :)

        Fortunately for me my hours don’t affect anyone else’s behavior because I’m the only IT and it’s chalked up to “you know how they are.” Believe me, no one takes a page out of my book.

        1. Chriama*

          I read this book awhile ago about “predictable time off”. I can’t remember what it’s called now, but a group of academics (psychologists?) studied the Boston Consulting Group and basically created a structure where team members could take PTO during the project week in some sort of rotating schedule.

          You’ve mentioned not being able to detach from work before, so I thought I’d recommend the book. It’s more of a case study than a step-by-step guide, but it does talk about how to structure a workforce so people cover for each other better and can take time off that’s truly “off”.

          1. Chriama*

            I googled it. The book is:
            Sleeping with Your Smartphone: How to Break the 24/7 Habit and Change the Way You Work

        2. Editor*

          The problem when the job is a little too much for one person is that if that one person is willing to suck it up, then another employee isn’t needed. Except, of course, that another employee is occasionally needed for backup and emergencies.

          I don’t know if there are IT best practices, but it seems to me that having one IT employee is not a best practice. I think of the problems people have written in about rogue or secretive or workaholic IT staffers who make transitions difficult. If two IT people have to share the work and aren’t allowed to split the work up so that neither one knows what the other is doing, then there’s a better change for work-life balance but also a modest safety net for the employer.

        3. AcademicAnon*

          Some jobs are just not structured to take time off easily. If you’re IT and whatever process needs to run 24/7/365 than someone has to do it, and if there’s only 1 person who knows how to do it, or has access to do it, than that person is basically on call all the time (this is spouse’s problem). In my field there often isn’t money to have someone who can cover a coworkers responsibilities, so if that person isn’t there it isn’t getting done. And if you’re not doing research into something that’s prime for winning an ig-noble, then it’s research that has a possibility of eventually leading to something that could eventually help someone, then there’s often this little voice in the back of your head you can’t take time off because maybe…

  13. Jessica*

    #1 – YES. I am fortunate to have a non-exempt position (although I have to remind my boss that I get comp time when I work weekend or evening hours), but my coworker does not. He works super-hard, gets in early when needed, and works weekend events when he has to, but our boss still gets on his case about how he needs to be willing to work late to get projects done, etc. Only in comparison to our boss’s non-stop work hours could my coworker possibly look like a slacker.

    1. Jessica*

      The funny thing is that our boss is always talking about work-life balance, the need to make time for family, etc., but he is not a good model of it at all.

    2. Jamie*

      You are getting comp time in addition to OT, correct? Because if you are in the US they need to pay you the OT if non-exempt regardless of their comp time policy.

      This gets violated a lot (not where I work) so I thought I would mention it.

      1. Jessica*

        I don’t think this would apply to me because the nature of my job requires that I occasionally attend events outside of normal work hours. How would I find out whether it applies?

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          If you are non-exempt, you must receive overtime pay (time and a half) for all hours over 40 you work in a given week. Period. If your’e non-exempt, it applies to you.

      2. Jessica*

        Maybe I should clarify what I mean by comp time — if I work an evening event, I leave early the next day so that my total hours in a week will not total more than 40. I don’t “bank” comp time for other weeks.

          1. Mallory*

            What if a non-exempt person occasionally works more than 40 hours, and comp time is accumulated at the time-and-a-half rate (1 hour worked over = 1.5 hours comp time)? And the non-exempt employee is given the choice (via check-boxes on the timesheet) whether comp time or overtime pay is preferred?

            1. Elysian*

              That is only occasionally legal if you work for the government. Private companies cannot do this instead of paying overtime in cash.

            2. Jamie*

              With the exception of some government agencies (and who understands their rules – they are as foreign to me as California and academia) you have to pay OT to non-exempt for hours worked in a week over 40. Above and beyond you can give them all the comp time you want – but that’s in addition to, not in lieu of paying the OT.

              What Jessica mentioned above isn’t really comp time how I use the term, that’s just scheduling her hours in the week if she stays under 40. For us (exempt) comp time is put on the books and added to your PTO bank to use another time.

              We have a large contingent of non-exempt people who would love to be able to bank some comp time in lieu of OT to supplement vacation because they go out of the country during shut-down and would prefer to have the option to extend that with banked time. But we can’t do it – we’ve shown them the law from the DOL that we cannot give comp time in lieu of pay even if they request it.

              I understand why the law is written the way it is, but the lack of flexibility does hurt a significant segment of employees who would like the option to choose.

              1. Elysian*

                In general, it would be nice if we could give people the flexibility to not be a-holes. But you know as soon as you give an inch on this one there would be someone, somewhere who would start deducting lunch from comp time earned from overtime hours or something (ie. you only get to eat lunch if you worked overtime last week), or something equally stupid. It’s either add a ton of regulations regarding how employers can deduct leave, or just force them to pay their employees in cash. I guess the gov’t chose the less regulation method (except for themselves).

          2. Anne*

            Depending on what state she’s in, however, there may be a requirement to pay overtime after 8 hours per day or after a certain number of days worked in a row.

            Jessica, google “your state overtime rules” and look at a .gov result to see exactly when they should be paying you overtime.

  14. Natalie*

    I always give a slight side-eye to any “technology is ruining us!” articles (people have been saying this at least as far back as the printing press), but I have noticed the multi-tasking issue myself. I trained myself into multitasking when I was the receptionist/admin, and now I’m not and the difficulty in focus is definitely noticeable. Even more so once we moved to an open plan environment – these people will not shut up!

    I’ve been experimenting with the Pomodoro technique (25 minutes focused work, 5 minute break) a bit recently – so far, so good, but I’m impatient I guess.

  15. Kelly L.*

    That about email explains so much about me–for example, I feel like I “forget” how to read if I’ve been online too much. I don’t actually forget how to process the words, but I can’t concentrate on the story and have little patience for any slowness in it.

  16. Wander*

    #2 – The time that it takes to hire new workers was a huge surprise to me when I started at my current job. My first interview to hire was fairly quick – less than a month, and that included a major holiday break. Once I got in though, I found out that my position had been vacant for 6 months. Other currently hiring positions in my department have been open for 7 months, 6 months, and 3 months. Apparently our screening is the problem, but I do think there’s a priority list, since some positions are filled very quickly and some just languish.

  17. Noah*

    #3 – When I first moved from a role where customer service and operations was the focus to a role where longer term projects was the norm I struggled a lot. I still struggle to focus on one thing for too long because I am so used to task switching constantly in response to immediate needs. It took me a long time to settle in and realize that most of my email’s can wait a few hours for a response now that I am not replying to immediate operational needs or customers.

    I also have a part time job on the “front lines” of customer service in an industry very similar to my full time position. I think the reason I enjoy it so much is that I get to be the one running around and dealing with operational issues and switching between tasks.

  18. Erik*

    #1 – Spot on.

    If your manager doesn’t have a life, neither will you. At my last company our manager was a bitter miserable person who decided to make everyone else the same way. He was always sending emails and text messages at all hours of the day and expecting people to pick up within 5 minutes. It was insane. I refused to “conform” to that crap and decided keep my sanity.

    I moved to another group with a manager who was more down to Earth. What a difference that made. He had a life, and the rest of us did too.

    I was go glad to leave that dump.

    1. Suzanne*

      Amen. One job I had, the manager truly seemed to love working 12 hour days. A co-worker lived in the same apartment complex and said she never went anywhere but work. So, when we were on constant overtime (after being told it would be “occasional”) and miserable, she never took our part with her managers because I think her life was her work and assumed ours should be as well.

      I had another job at a small academic library. When the campus was closed for inclement weather or national holidays, did the library close? Oh, no!! The library director expected us to be open because students might need library service.

      I didn’t stay at either job very long…

  19. coconutwater*

    I completely believe it changes your brain to work with constant interruptions and required multitasking. I worked a rather high volume, high multitasking, high interruptions job. I called it “working in putting out fires mode” for it was primarily deadline driven and when I took the job, the work I inherited was running over a year behind. The job destroyed my health and I never did catch up. It’s really hard on your body and mind to work in putting out fires mode long term.

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