Managing the ‘always on’ culture – a myth buster and agenda for better practice

Professor Almuth McDowall (Department of Organizational Psychology) shares her research into worklife balance and calls on employers to take responsibility for their organisation’s culture.

Break, Business, Business People, Businesswoman, Cafe

There is much being written and said about the ‘always on culture’ and how we are increasingly glued to our digital devices – whether at work or at home. Some of my own research has also concerned itself with this topic. My colleague and friend Gail Kinman and I had the results from a practice survey published in 2018 as we wanted to know what organisations are doing about the changing world of work, and the use of information and computer technology.

Well, precious little is the answer. Over half of our respondents said that their organisations don’t have a relevant policy in place and don’t offer any guidance or training. Somewhat worryingly over 40% thought that it should be up to individuals to manage the issue, rather than their line managers or human resources.

Why would people choose to be ‘always on’ outside formal working hours?

Working unpaid during leisure time does not make logical sense! We gift the UK economy billions in unpaid overtime year on year, as research by the Trade Unions Congress has revealed. Our systematic review with colleagues Svenja Schlachter, Ilke Inceoglu and Mark Cropley pointed to a complex picture.

People have different motivations, influenced by issues such as what everyone else does (social norms), what the expectations in the job are, how committed people feel to their job, how they value ‘switching off’ and recovery and whether this is supported in their environment. One key issue which came out of this review is the ‘empowerment enslavement paradox’. Our digital devices are both an enabler, as they afford flexibility, but also ‘digital leash’ as it’s difficult to say ‘enough is enough’ and switch off. As we all know, screen-time can be very seductive.

Is there any evidence that being ‘always on’ is bad for our health?

A recent econometric analysis shows that ICT infrastructure has a positive impact on population health (the authors measured general health outcomes such as infant mortality etc.). Regarding the impact of social media use, there is evidence that high use is linked to poor sleep quality, anxiety depression and low self-esteem. Of course, such studies cannot tell us whether teenagers who are highly anxious to start off with are more likely to be prolific users.

There is far less robust evidence on the exact effects from the world of work – what happens to you if you are on your phone, tablet or laptop near 24/7? We lack good research to tell us what the exact effects are.

What we do know though is that we need recovery and respite, our systems are simply not programmed to be on continuous overdrive. We also know that leisure activities which are quite different from our work tasks are better for our recovery than doing more of the same. I take this to heart. For instance, I find that reading at night doesn’t help me switch off as academics read rather a lot at work, so I take ballet classes online (and am known to teach the odd one myself!), knit and crochet.

What can organisations do?

Employers have a duty of care and should ensure that people are not overworked and can switch off. Worklife balance research tells us that those who live ‘enriched’ lives have better mental and physical health, important for them, and important for their employer. We should actively support employees by ensuring that:

  • A worklife balance policy is in place as a point of reference; then check processes and structures against this policy
  • Employers review job design and ensure that digital tasks (checking and responding to emails, synchronising devices, remote calls and conferences) are actually captured in people’s workload and tasks – these often fall off the radar
  • There is consultation to ask employees what they need – mutually negotiated boundaries and solutions work much better. Think creatively about flexible solutions!
  • Everyone, including senior leaders and managers, role models good behaviours. People need time to switch off, so don’t expect your staff to be available outside normal working hours
  • Staff are offered training and development. Managing in an increasingly digital workspace requires up-to-date management and leadership skills
  • Employees look out for implicit expectations and ‘rumours’. “I check my emails on holiday because this is what is expected of me”. Really? Question such assumptions as they can often take on a life of their own

Finally, if in doubt, ask a psychologist. The Department of Organizational Psychology is keen to work with organisations to establish, consolidate and evaluate best practice.

Further information:

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Examining the class system in British museum employment

Sam Evans, a PhD researcher at the Department for Organizational Psychology, is leading a series of focus groups which will ask participants to reveal what it takes to get in and get on in the museum sector, and how social class shapes career chances and experiences.

I’m interested in how inequality is reinforced in the workplace. Class, until recently, has been surprisingly absent from the debate. Research into diversity or equality, often overlooks class, as does occupational psychology in general. Part of the reason for this absence is that class is not a legally protected characteristic, like age or gender, but also it is argued that there has been a more fundamental ‘individualisation’ of Western culture.

Class identities have become more difficult to see or express in the workplace. Our careers are thus seen as our responsibility, and we don’t often think or talk about the structural inequalities that might frame this. However, there is research suggesting inequality at work is increasing, professions are becoming more not less exclusive, and social mobility is declining.

I want to explore these issues in-depth in my research project, The Museum of Them and Us; I am interested not just in how people are classed, but also occupations, roles and organisations. I am particularly interested in why some careers and types of work favour some groups of people and not others. We assume anyone can get in and get on, no matter how tough, given they have the right personal qualities. But what is this really like for people from different backgrounds? I have chosen to look at museums, partly because I am familiar with the field, but also because visiting and working in museums is described as middle class. But why is this, does this account for all types of work, and what does this mean for people who might not be from middle-class backgrounds.

I don’t have a fixed definition of the term ‘class’ (this is a subject that has been debated for 150 years and most researchers recognise there is no one single definition), but am using Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of capital of class. This involves looking at the types of economic, social or cultural capital that are valued within different types of museum work and how this relates to the type of capital people actually have, or are able to acquire. Cultural capital is particularly important as this relates to accent, dress, education and knowledge of particular types of culture, and is often highly valued in cultural work.

I have already conducted interviews with representative bodies, trade unions and membership bodies as well as analysing reports and websites to look at how ‘getting and getting on is described’. I have found that, as with other research, museum work has become less secure and more competitive. The onus seems to be on the person to develop themselves as specialist and professional, and yet also flexible and versatile. This potentially makes it riskier and less beneficial for anyone entering the field. Class was talked about but was often described as difficult to see or measure, and most diversity initiatives were aimed at developing the individual to fit the required ways of working, rather than look more closely at how ways of working might be creating inequalities.

With the focus groups and interviews, on the one hand, I am asking people to talk about their work – what it takes to get in and on, how this might have changed, how this might be different for different roles, are some roles held in higher esteem than others and why. On the other hand, I want to talk about social class – what does it mean to people, do they think class matters and if so, how? I am also asking people to contribute images or photos that they think represent their work.

Take part in the focus groups:

If you have worked or volunteered for a museum you can take part in a focus group or an interview. If people think that class has mattered to them in particular, I am also conducting private interviews.

Taking part is confidential, enjoyable and you will be helping the sector. To take part in a focus group or an interview and for further information, please contact me or visit my website.

Thursday 5 April
6PM – 7.30PM, Birkbeck Main Building, Room MAL 420, Malet Street, WC1E 7HZ  

Wednesday 11 April
6.30PM – 8PM, Birkbeck Main Building, Room MAL 420, Malet Street, WC1E 7HZ.

Thursday 26 April
6PM – 7.30PM, Museums Association Offices, 42 Clerkenwell Close, London, EC1R 0AZ

Friday 18 May
2.30PM – 4PM, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Chamberlain Square, Birmingham B3 3DH

Wednesday 23 May
6PM – 7.30PM, Museums Association Offices, 42 Clerkenwell Close, London, EC1R 0AZ

Thursday 7 June
4PM – 5.30PM, Whitworth Gallery, The University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester, M15 6ER

Thursday 14 June
5.30PM – 7PM, M Shed, Princes Wharf, Wapping Road, Bristol, BS1 4RN

Or schedule an interview:
If you think social class has mattered to you personally in your work or career then you can take in part in an individual interview, by email, Skype or face to face (depending on your location).

If you are interested in finding out more, please contact Sam directly.

About Sam:

I studied History originally, and then spent about 25 years working in marketing in the museum, cultural and public sectors. A lot of my work was really about understanding people and organisational cultures as much as ‘doing’ marketing, hence my interest in studying organisational psychology.  I started studying part time about 8 years ago, first obtaining a degree in psychology at OU, then moving on to the MSc in Organisational Psychology at Birkbeck.

About the same time as graduating, I was made redundant, which forced a decision – stick to the marketing “battleship” I knew, or jump onto the less stable “raft” of psychology. I had already met some PhD students and Dr Rebecca Whiting who became my supervisor, and thought I would really like to study for a PhD here. So when I was offered a studentship, I took the leap. It’s been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made!

From Dr Rebecca Whiting, a lecturer in the Department of Organisational Psychology and Sam’s PhD supervisor:

Sam brings a wealth of experience to her research from working in this sector and an intellectual rigour from her academic training. Class is a challenging concept to research because of the many and sometimes conflicting ways in which its conceptualised and measured.

Many definitions reflect the relationship between class and socio-economic and cultural status. However, since class is not a ‘protected characteristic’ under the Equality Act 2010, it doesn’t always appear as an aspect of diversity in organizations, so is ripe for critical investigation. Museums are key locations of our socio-cultural heritage but are an under-researched context in organizational and occupational research.

This highlights the importance of Sam’s research which brings together this topic and context to explore how class impacts on museum work.

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Picturing the family: media, narrative, memory

Dr Silke Arnold-De Simine, Reader in Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies, discusses family photographs and cultural memory – the subject matter of her new book, co-edited with Dr Joanne Leal.

In the summer of 2005, during a Visiting Fellowship at the ANU in Canberra, I came across a rather eerie notice in a display cabinet of a small campus exhibition only to see it again and again in the following weeks at the beginning of television programmes and cinema screenings. It advised spectators to ‘use caution viewing these photographs/films, as they may contain images or voices of dead persons’. At first I was puzzled but then I came to understand that in aboriginal society, where people traditionally live in extended family groups, it is considered a taboo to refer to a dead person by name or to look at photographs or film footage of the deceased, partly out of respect but also to avoid painful memories.

As a scholar I was of course reminded of Roland Barthes’s iconic winter garden photograph of his late mother as a young girl, which he famously describes but refuses to share with his readers, and of W.G. Sebald’s omissions in his books, in which family photographs – some reproduced as actual images, some only described – conjure up a mournful mood. What makes photographically captured moments so powerful that they stay with us as a form of ‘afterimage’ even if they have been evoked in another medium such as language? It made me think about what difference it makes if we remember through language, through images, both still or moving, or a combination of mimetic and non-mimetic representations. While it draws out questions around mediated memory, the affective power of photography and the related tropes of death, loss and mourning, my Australian experience was also a stark reminder of the historical and cultural specificity of our encounters with photographs.

The contexts in which we peruse family photographs can be marked as a sad occasion (for example after the death of a family member) or a joyous moment in life (celebrations, birthdays or anniversaries). The viewing experience will not only be influenced by what is depicted and by the occasion that triggers a re-viewing, but also by the formats in which these images are available to us. Are they carefully collected and even annotated in a family album, stored away in shoeboxes or (half-)forgotten in attics? Or are these records of cherished or important moments at our fingertips on camera phones to be shown to a wide circle of acquaintances? Are they framed and on display in homes or in (semi-)public spaces such as social media or archived and exhibited in museums? Do they circulate across different media? Have they gone through a period of being lost, together with the identity of those depicted, to resurface in archives, junk shops or eBay auctions?

If the photographs or photo albums have been displaced and the oral forms of communication which accrue around them have been lost, if they themselves have no annotations or captions, they can be full of mysteries and invite imaginative investment: not only the questions of who and what the photograph shows, but also why, how, where and when it was taken are open to speculation. Who is behind the camera lens? Who do these people in the photograph look at, smile at, frown at? Once they have forfeited their function as family memento, family photographs can lead a complicated after-life in which they become decontextualised and recontextualised, triggering and shaping memories, inviting storytelling, helping us negotiate the past and the future, deconstructing and reconstructing notions of family, kinship and community, and helping us cope with ruptures and (re)establish connections and elective affinities in empathic encounters.

It is important to remember that we perform our identities in relation to the cultural contexts that shape who we are. How we practice intimacy and share our lives with others is determined by the very specific family dynamics in which we grew up, just as much as it depends on the media technologies that are at our fingertips, but it is also historically and culturally contingent. The boundaries between what is considered private and what can be shared with a wider public have experienced a seismic shift over the last few decades: from chat shows and reality TV to social media, blogs and YouTube, ‘sharing’ has become part of how we define our identity as connected beings. We are encouraged to connect to ‘Others’ through empathy, a feeling of relatability that is very much modelled on the notion of kinship and just as often limited by it.

With the increased mobility of people across the globe and the encounters resulting from this, it becomes more and more necessary to question what we mean by ‘family’, ‘home’ and ‘belonging’, to reconceive these concepts so that they enable us to understand and come to terms with the complex realities that we will have to face and to enable us to build alternative modes of social belonging and new forms of community.

These are some of the themes that are explored in this collection of essays (edited by myself and Joanne Leal) that introduces a dialogue between academic, creative and practice-based approaches. From the act of revisiting and reworking old, personal photographs to the sale of family albums through internet auction, each of the twelve chapters presents a case study to understand how these visual representations of the family perform memory and identity.

Picturing the Family is available from Bloomsbury. 

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Knowing death

This article was written by Khyati Tripathi, a Commonwealth split-site PhD scholar from the Department of Psychology, University of Delhi, India and pursing a year of her PhD in the Department of Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck under the supervision of Professor Stephen Frosh. Khyati has been selected for Cumberland Lodge’s Emerging International Leaders Programme on Freedom of Religion or Belief.
coffinThrough my PhD project, I am trying to understand how varied social constructions of dead bodies lead to different conceptualizations of death in a culture with a special focus on mortuary techniques (embalmment per se). Death is more than just a biological fact; it is also a social phenomenon. A dead body is the carrier of the social meanings that a culture attaches to death. Each culture has a different lens to look at the bodies whether it be male bodies, female bodies or dead bodies. Through my research I want to know how these cultural lenses differ by drawing a cross-cultural comparison between Delhi (India) and London (UK).

As a curious researcher, I have always been intrigued by the untouched complexes of human existence and death is one of them. This interest is closely tied with my experience of losing a friend in an accident when I was 14 and since then I have been on an ongoing quest to ‘know death’. I have been working in the area of death and related themes for eight years now and this journey started with my first project in  the final year of my undergraduate degree, which focused on the impact of physical health on death anxiety, where I worked with terminally ill (cancer patients), chronically ill and healthy individuals. A second research project that soon followed studied death personification i.e. how would people perceive death as a human or a person? A third analyzed the death rituals of  three religions- Hinduism, Islam and Christianity and a fourth was an ethnographic study to explore experiences of Hindu death priests of north India.

I have had many different experiences working on these projects. I remember sitting in the waiting area of the hospital where I had to meet cancer patients for my first project and not wanting to go inside thinking ‘I cannot do this’. I had presumed that none of the patients would want to talk to me about death and I would out rightly be rejected and dismissed. Gathering strength, I went inside the ward where I could see at least 15 beds. I took a right and approached the corner most one. There sat a 73-year-old man reading a newspaper. I greeted him and explained to him the purpose and objectives of my study. He replied saying, “of course, ask me whatever you want” while signing the informed consent. My interaction with him lasted almost six hours. My first ever participant made me realize that as a researcher you need to have no notions and assumptions about your field. There were quite a few  patients who wanted to talk about death with me because they did not want to talk about it with their family members. I can’t say that I was never rejected, I was – a lot and I accepted all rejections with respect. I knew that I was working in a sensitive research area and needed to be receptive.

I am asked a lot if working in this area makes me ‘depressed’. I would say no, it doesn’t but it does make me ask questions about our existence as humans. It gets overwhelming a lot of times and I distance myself when I feel saturated. My parents have been my pillars of strength. They supported me in each and every endeavor of mine and have given me the emotional care, support and motivation that I needed to continue.

I believe that life is a mystery that unfolds gradually but death is a bigger mystery because it is uncertain and this uncertainty and unpredictability about death make people anxious. Through my research, I want to study different aspects of death (ritual-based, culture-based, etc.) and contribute to the field of ‘Death Education’ in India and elsewhere.

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