It wasn’t too surprising to learn from two recent psychology studies that being “on call” is stressful, exhausting and dampens your mood. The tribulations of sleep-deprived junior doctors are legendary, while zero-hours contracts and unpredictable work schedules are subjects of controversy on both sides of the Atlantic. But there are plenty of things wrong with those kinds of jobs: the sleep disruption of shift work; the family disruption of irregular hours; low pay. These studies – one German, one Dutch – sought to pinpoint the specific psychological costs of knowing you could be called upon, so that you can’t entirely relax. Compared with genuine time off, on-call days left workers tired and unhappy, and with higher levels of cortisol in their bloodstreams, regardless of whether they ended up working or not. It also didn’t much matter if they had only a few on-call hours per week; those hours were tense and miserable all the same.
And these days, whatever it says in your contract, aren’t most of us with jobs increasingly on call, all the time? It’s worst at the bottom of the ladder, without doubt. But as many glum critics have noted, technology has eroded the boundaries that used to segment our lives. Meanwhile, our employers’ expectations ratchet ever higher. (The latter isn’t always even deliberate: when your boss replies to your email on Sunday night, he or she might think she’s making a purely personal choice to do so – yet a subtle expectation has been established.) What this new research underlines is that the mere possibility of interruption is sufficient to cause trouble, even if that interruption never comes. Last year, a study suggested that the visible presence of one’s mobile phone on the table was enough to disrupt performance at certain brain-taxing tasks. The phone didn’t need to ring; it just had to “crouch, getting ready to ring”, the potential was enough.
The bigger problem here – work’s incursion into every corner of our inner lives – is political, and won’t be fixed with tricks and tips. Nonetheless, it’s worth asking if there are ways you’re effectively putting yourself on call when you needn’t be. For example, you switch your phone off for a few hours during the day and in the evening and at night, which could well help you sleep better. Other possibilities suggest themselves: if you don’t need to answer work emails at the weekend, don’t check them. (Use a separate address for non-work messages, or set up a Gmail filter so you see only those you want to see.) Use a different device if you can, too: using work technology at home, it’s been shown, makes it harder to detach. And definitely turn off social media notifications on your phone, thus eliminating the nagging anticipation that one might arrive. There’s plenty in life you can’t control. Don’t leave your mind at the mercy of the things you can.