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Trouble unplugging from work? Join the crowd

Businessman in kitchen holding toddler
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There's plenty of evidence that the traditional eight-hour workday has gone the way of the cassette tape with many employees routinely staying past 5 p.m. and remotely checking in with the office well into the night. But now an inevitable clash has arisen—what might generously be called "work-family multitasking."

As professional and personal lives become increasingly intertwined in this always-connected world, workers and their families are struggling to set boundaries.

A CareerBuilder survey released Thursday found 24 percent of knowledge workers check work emails during activities with family and friends. Nearly the same amount said work is the last thing they think about before they go to bed and fully 42 percent say it's the first thing they think about when they wake up.

And nearly 1 in 5 people seem to have no ability at all to unplug from the office—17 percent said they have a "tough time enjoying leisure activities because they are thinking about work."

"The problem is that we have created an expectation in our society that we are reachable and available at all times. The new technology allows that and, instead of putting boundaries on our time outside of traditional work hours, we allow work to bleed into our downtime and personal time and to interfere with quality time with family and friends," said Tanya Schevitz, spokesperson for Reboot, a think tank that promotes an annual National Day of Unplugging in March.

"We need to reset expectations to give ourselves a break from being constantly 'on.' Certainly we all have crunch times when we do need to put in a lot of extra hours ... but this 24-hour cycle of work should not be the norm."

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The CareerBuilder survey found that men are more likely than women to email outside the office (59 percent to 42 percent) and to work while with friends and family (30 percent to 18 percent), but women are more likely to worry about work when they go to bed at night (23 percent to 16 percent). Midcareer professionals seemed to have the hardest time separating work from home life, according the survey: half of 45- to-54-year-old employees said they work after hours, compared to 31 percent of 18- to 24-year olds.

"This study continues to reinforce the fact that American workplaces still aren't getting it right," said Mika Cross, former ‎director of work/life and flexible workplace strategy at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. "What we need is a culture shift in order to remedy our outdated model of what work is. That clearly isn't functioning successfully for the five generations of workers in today's modern, mobile workplace."

That culture shift won't likely come from workers, who have surprisingly positive attitudes toward their digital tethers. CareerBuilder found that 62 percent of workers say using late-night email is a choice rather than an obligation.

And last year, when Gallup explored the issue, the results were stunningly positive. Gallup found that while one-third of full-time workers were expected to check work email outside of work hours, nearly 8 in 10 U.S. adults said the ability to work remotely outside of business hours is a positive development. A different Gallup study found that even though workers who frequently check email outside of work were far more likely to say they are stressed, that group was also much more likely to say they are "thriving."

"In seeming contrast to the relationship between the use of mobile technology for work and its relationship to elevated daily stress, workers who email or work remotely outside of normal working hours also rate their lives better than their counterparts who do not," Gallup wrote in a blog post accompanying the study. "Even after controlling for all key demographics, workers who leverage mobile technology more often outside of work are much more likely to be stressed on any given day, while simultaneously being more likely to rate their lives better."

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There are benefits to remote work, of course. Working from home can relieve the stress of a commute. Parents of young children can leave the office early, pick up the kids at day care and then finish their tasks after a family dinner.

"Moving away from a 9-to-5 workweek may not be possible for some companies ... but if done right, allowing employees more freedom and flexibility with their schedules can improve morale, boost productivity and increase retention rates," said Rosemary Haefner, chief human resources officer at CareerBuilder.

But blending these worlds together brings all sorts of well-known hazards. Overwork brings with it increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and depression, according to a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, while "binge" working has even killed workers in extreme cases. Overwork isn't great for employers, either. Tests show workers have impaired cognitive skills when working nine- to 12-hour days, and worker effectiveness falls off the cliff after 50 hours of work during the week.

Working outside of traditional hours or offices can also interfere with personal relationships.

"I spoke recently with a gentleman who works for a state government agency and he told me that he is constantly on Twitter on his phone after normal work hours," said Russell Clayton, a management professor at St. Leo University. "He told me that in the evening he will use one hand to catch a ball thrown by his toddler son and use his other hand to scroll through Twitter."

While it's possible to tweet and play catch—at least, if you're well-coordinated—most people wildly overestimate their ability to multitask. Stanford University research found that folks who described themselves as expert multitaskers actually performed worse on cognitive tests than the general population. Most experts agree that, with rare exceptions, "multitasking" is really just rapid toggling between tasks, which brings with it switching costs ("Now where were we?") that make the whole affair much less efficient.

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You might think you can read your email while listening to your wife talk about her day, but you can't. Researchers have found that trying to do so really will hurt your home life. "Work-family multitasking is positively related to work-family conflict ... when the various types of working at home are accompanied by work-family multitasking, conflict and stress are likely to result," wrote Patricia Voydanoff, then a University of Dayton professor, in a 2005 study.

You can, however, set expectations at home, which seems to help a lot. Voydanoff's research found a big difference between family members who routinely work at home during prescribed hours and those who brought work home in a "less structured" way.

"The context matters," Clayton said. "If an individual works from home a majority of the time, then the spouse or children are less likely to perceive that work is interfering with home (life)."

Setting strong boundaries seems to be the key to keeping work and personal life in balance, but those boundaries are constantly threatened by new gadgets and software that open even more lines of communication between worker and employer. It's easy to make a no email rule after 6 p.m., but what about texting? Or tweeting?

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Particularly in an economy that's still struggling to find its footing, at a time when employees still feel insecure about the future, companies will have to do a better job of recognizing the threat of overwork and detecting and addressing potential problems early on, Cross said.

"While enabling a work culture that embraces flexibilities, leaders also have to be cognizant of the expectation they set for their workers to be 'on' or available all the time," she said. "Not only will this require a culture shift, but also a new set of competencies for both employees and managers, to learn how to effectively manage personal time, set boundaries and identify the signs of being overworked."

Bob Sullivan writes about the toxic mix of economic anxiety and technology-fueled stress in his ongoing series, The Restless Project, published on his blog at bobsullivan.net/

This story has been updated to reflect that Mika Cross is the former ‎director of work/life and flexible workplace strategy at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.