Thursday, 10 September 2015

The psychological toll of being off-duty but "on call"

That increasingly common end-of-day feeling: of physically leaving the office, only for it to tag along home. Thanks largely to technology, our availability – to clients, bosses and co-workers – extends into our evenings, weekends and even holidays. Getting a clear account of what this means for us isn’t easy, as jobs that intrude more into leisure time are also distinguished by higher pace and further factors known and unknown, making it hard to pinpoint what harmful effects, if any, are specifically due to our constant availability.

A new study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, and led by Jan Dettmers at the University of Hamburg, takes a fresh tack on this, investigating workers who have two types of free-time: on-call periods where they are free to please themselves but must remain available for potential work demands, and other periods where they are truly off-duty. For each individual participant, this set up keeps job-role demands and responsibilities equal while varying the need to be available. The data suggest that extended work availability has a negative effect: dampening mood and also increasing markers of physiological stress.

The 132 participants – mostly men in 13 organisations ranging from IT to transport – spent periods of their calendar on-call, meaning they were available out of office hours to deal with special customer requests or troubleshoot technical emergencies. For the purposes of the study, the researchers focused on a four-day on-call period (including the weekend) and a similar period without on-call responsibilities.

During the study, participants completed morning mood diaries that showed them to be more tired, tense and unwell following an on-call day. The effect remained even after controlling for the number of work calls taken the previous day – suggesting it isn’t explained purely by lengthy and draining interactions. It’s likely that the mere anticipation of interruption, and the resulting loss of control over one’s free time, eats away at the benefits of leisure, even if the interruptions turn out to be minor.

In addition to the diary information, 51 participants provided physiological data in the form of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol can be used as a physiological marker of stress: specifically, the degree of its post-waking climb in concentration, which appears to be a preparation for the anticipated stresses of the day. A larger increase suggests a more stress-oriented state, and Dettmers and his team were able to analyse this from cotton balls that participants chewed on immediately after waking, and 15 minutes and 30 minutes after waking, before popping them into the freezer to await collection. The cortisol awakening response was greater the morning after an on-call day, with this effect also persisting once the volume of the previous day’s interruptions was controlled for.

We already know that use of work technology during free time makes it harder to relax and detach. Here we see further evidence that the mere prospect of work-related interruptions during free time can exacerbate stress. In the organisations researched in this study, on-call periods were formally identified as such and represented just a fraction of the work calendar; an unspoken truth in many organisations is that on-call is the unofficial default mode. In these cases, carving out truly off-call periods that allow people to reclaim control over their experiences is long overdue.


Dettmers, J., Vahle-Hinz, T., Bamberg, E., Friedrich, N., & Keller, M. (2015). Extended Work Availability and Its Relation With Start-of-Day Mood and Cortisol. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0039602

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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