An Ode to On-Call

There are a lot of people out there for whom work and home are not distinct. If you’re expected to answer your phone, or email, when you are not at work, you are not alone. If your company has productivity standards that no reasonable person could meet during the hours for which they are paid, I see you. If you are one of the thousands of people whose sleep, meals, relationships, bathroom breaks, movies, vacations and holidays are interrupted by the beeps and buzzes of your phone, I am here for you. 

Whether you knew what you were getting into or not, the 'always-on' work culture trains our mind and body to adapt to circumstances in which a heightened state of reactivity becomes a default setting. Over time, people come to expect that their conversations will be interrupted, so they stay a little closer to the surface. Sleep becomes less restorative as their brain learns it has to go from rest to best at a moment's notice. Friends and family come to expect that plans will be delayed, or cancelled, with little warning if something at work comes up, leading to strained relationships throughout the support system, which only exacerbates the stress of uncertainty. 

You are not a machine. When employees are expected to add value to the company whilst being cut off from the vital nutrients that keep them healthy (sleep, daylight, predictability, strong relationships, time for activities that make life worth living) they are being treated as equipment more than the conscious humans that they are.


So what do we do? In the short term, these are some options:

1)  Get really clear about the expectations in your work group. Example | Reduce assumptions. If your manager sends an email at 10pm on a Saturday, do they expect you to respond immediately, or are they sending it when they have the time to do so? Example | Identify levels of responsiveness. Can your response time be chunked into immediate, under 30 minutes, 1 hour, etcetera?  Developing a communication system in which team members consistently flag their requests with this information serves to minimize unnecessary stress. It may be that the vast majority of your work requires immediate response. I get it, the next two options may be more helpful. In general though, clarifying miscommunication (at home and at work) is like finding money on the street. Nobody needs to compromise, negotiate or advocate, they just get to move forward a little better off.

2) If you have taken the step to clarify expectations, the next step is to reinforce your relationships. Just like our buildings increasingly have earthquake proofing, your relationships need the same kind of upgrade. Have conversations with your people (friends, partners, kids, parents, whoever) about the aspects of your work that you have control over, and the aspects you don’t. This can reduce risk of confusion, misunderstanding and resentment down the road. Example | you might say, “If a work thing comes in, and I have to respond immediately, I will let you know as soon as I can. Then I’ll give you an estimate of how long I think it's going to take so you can plan your next steps accordingly.”  Granted, if you and your partner are engaged in separate activities at home, maybe this level of detail isn’t necessary, but if there are plans with friends, a date night, parenting responsibilities or a shared activity of some kind in the works, more communication will likely be needed. So often, partners of folks who have on-call jobs experience second-hand stress because of the fluctuations in scheduling. When you invest in your support network through conversations like these, you increase predictability, stability and trust which will produce stronger relationships. 

3)Keep the light of your humanity on by cultivating creativity. On-call work has the tendency to saturate your mind space with logic, problem solving and technical information. All great things, don’t get me wrong, but when our pre-frontal cortex works overtime, it tends to get tired and make more mistakes; which can lead to self-doubt, fear, anxiety or shame. By letting our limbic system share some of the load, we relax, and become more expressive, innovative and connected. So whether you’re creating something yourself, or are taking the time to enjoy the fruits of someone else’s creativity, you can reap the benefits of a more balanced brain. Example | writing, art, making/listening to music, dancing, cooking, coding and outside activities. Nature offers us the unique opportunity to sync our mind and body through movement, allowing us to connect, on a visceral level, to our internal landscape.

If you read this and thought, it is just not that easy. I agree. Especially when on-call work is layered on top of pre-existing anxiety, depression, partnering, parenting, and variable management structure. This post is not intended to be a quick fix, or a, “see it’s easy!” The intention is to open a dialog about the challenges that come with this type of work and start thinking strategically about how to integrate work and home life in a way that is sustainable for your physical, emotional and relational health.

There is so much more we could talk about and I would love to continue the conversation. If any of what you read here resonated, please don’t hesitate to schedule an appointment, or stay tuned for upcoming events in Hillsboro on this topic.