Have you been a witness to traffic snarls that were caused due to the absence of traffic officers at the signal and people taking advantage of the malfunctioning lights? While the first few had their way and vroomed their way out of the chaos, what they left in their wake was a never-ending traffic jam taking away precious time out of people's lives. I often find office WhatsApp groups to be similar. These are unmanned traffic signals. People need monitoring and umpiring with rules of conduct. Without that, everything goes for a toss and our sanity is compromised.
Today, for practical purposes, we are working out of WhatsApp. This became prominent in the wake of the pandemic as offices moved online and messaging platforms like WhatsApp became our method of communication with colleagues. While we are back in offices, we haven't quite gone back to pre-pandemic work etiquette. If you understand anything about how these messaging platforms work, you would know they are highly addictive. They are designed with the purpose of conditioning you to use them for long periods. Without any prompt, we check our phones every few minutes.
Hyper accessibility works only to the advantage of the company and to the detriment of an employee's rights to privacy and a life outside of work. It is not a two-way process. The worst part is that, because messages can arrive in your inbox at any time, your body remains hyper alert on the time. Innocuous, non-urgent messages from the boss send our body into fight-flight mode. The biggest downside is the lines between what is urgent and not has blurred. We do not know if a message from the workplace was warranted or could have been pushed to the next day.
Shockingly, no one in the Human Resource has made a WhatsApp sign-out rule, while claiming to worry about the mental health of employees.
Even as well-meaning life coaches are asking you to build stronger relationship boundaries, we are completely at a loss when it comes to work boundaries. In fact, our personal relationships are suffering because an emergency message from the boss can come at any moment. One cannot solely blame messaging platforms for our receding personal life. The problem with using any form of social media communication is that it keeps you in a constant loop of hyper-alacrity compromising your personal time as you are unable to prioritise.
Being active on social messaging groups and instantly responding to messages is seen as part of how productive you are. Interestingly, being active on an office WhatsApp group shows you are less productive.
Individually, you may offload these apps. You may have a separate work phone or decide to switch off after a certain point. But these are privileges most people cannot afford, particularly when your online responsiveness is seen as sincerity, even at odd hours of the day. There have to be organisational standards and HR policy. Before you join, try and understand the WhatsApp culture of the workplace. Ask companies questions about what is the expectation in terms of online availability after work hours and put them on the defensive.
We work in the digital world and we need to tweak work rules and cultures to suit the new reality. Or else we will end up with a young, burnout, sleep-deprived, inefficient workforce with serious mental health issues.
(The writer is a mental health and behavioural sciences columnist, conducts art therapy workshops and provides personality development sessions for young adults. She can be found @the_millennial_pilgrim on Instagram and Twitter.)