How often do you find yourself at home on a Sunday evening, trying desperately to ignore your phone flashing up with another email? All too often, you give in to temptation and pick it up, fire off a few emails, maybe finish that presentation you’ve been putting off and idly scroll through LinkedIn.

It’s no secret that workers today struggle to fully switch off from their work. However, research conducted by Ultimate Finance has found that the problem is more severe than previously thought. Added to that, the manufacturing sector has the worst work/life balance in the UK. People running SMEs in the industry are particularly at risk, with 92% of them admitting they are worried that their professional lives are negatively impacting relationships with family and friends.

“Business leaders are finding it harder to differentiate between work and non-work environments,” says John Lightfoot, head of relationship management at Ultimate Finance. “This has a knock-on effect on performance at work. Having a poor work/life balance is not beneficial for either the employee or leader, or the company as a whole.”

Should this be a surprise, though? Joyce Maroney, executive director at The Workforce Institute, says that the proliferation of technology and changing work patterns means today’s leaders can never switch off. “The same advanced technology that has fundamentally changed and, in many cases, improved the way we work has also blurred the lines between personal and professional lives,” she explains.

A division of Kronos, The Workforce Institute is a thinktank that explores ways companies can boost performance by maximising their staff. It recently conducted its own research and has discovered what they have christened the ‘always-on con’ – employees are addicted to their devices. Three-quarters (74%) of employees say they use a work-related app, such as LinkedIn, on a personal device while at home, and 36% feel pressured to check work emails while at home. Even while on holiday, 60% admitted to checking work-related apps.

Lightfoot has a different term for it – the downtime obsession. “This is something that particularly plagues leaders and owners of SMEs,” he explains. “On the one hand, it’s healthy to be committed and engaged with your business; the problem comes when it tips too far the other way and you become obsessed – a quick flick through emails at 7.30pm on a Sunday becomes hours spent on them. If you’re not careful, you end up spending so much time working that you stop enjoying your time at home. Then, you start making poor decisions in the workplace that harm the business. What starts off feeling like a comfort blanket – staying on top of emails and progressing the business – can become something very different that turns you into a poor decision-maker and poor leader.”

Work to live, not live to work

Employees who are engaged with their jobs and their employers are generally more productive and will deliver better results – that’s no surprise. However, a study in the USA found that American workers had 206 million unused vacation days in 2016, which amounts to $66.4 billion.

Many professionals may think the less time they take away from the office, the more likely they are to impress their boss. A study from the US Travel Association’s Project: Time Off found the opposite. It said employees who use their vacation days are actually more likely to get a promotion or raise, versus employees who end the year with unused time off. This is becoming increasingly understood, says Maroney of The Workforce Institute. “While workers worldwide are determined to fulfil their employer’s expectations, they also desire more time to spend with their family, travel and focus on their physical and emotional wellbeing. Helping employees achieve a work-life balance that works for them is therefore a critical element to achieving significant employee engagement.”

One person looking to put this into action is Peter Bruch, managing director of Birmingham-based AE Aerospace, a precision components supplier to the aerospace industry. “The trouble is, people get too wrapped up in the day-to-day, and don’t realise the effect it’s having on their health, your relationships with family and the wider business,” he says. “People eventually reach burnout and their productivity and capabilities become very low.”

AE Aerospace has acted on this by minimising the number of hours of overtime employees are allowed to work. Office-based staff are encouraged to complete their work within normal working hours. However, Bruch concedes, there is still work to do when it comes to his senior management team. “When it comes to the leadership team, the job often means we have to put in extra hours,” he says. “We all try and get the job done in the time allowed, but the demands of the customer mean we need to get their orders sorted as soon as we can. Being a subcontractor, things often happen with orderbooks and our customers’ customers that put pressure on us to react quickly. Even so, we’re trying to ensure that our senior staff don’t spend too much time working in the evenings and at weekends, otherwise they end up burnt out and of no use to anyone.”

However, the shopfloor are largely protected from this, continues Bruch. “During the week there are very few emails sent after 6pm; there are even fewer at the weekend. However, if any are sent – even by me and the rest of senior management – we don’t expect them to be answered until Monday morning. We’re also very deliberate about not phoning people in the evenings or on their time off. If there’s an issue and the person we need isn’t there, we will try and sort it internally first. If we then desperately need to get hold of them outside of work hours, we will call or text them. We treat people who aren’t at work as being off the planet – that tends to work pretty well!”

Trust your team

AE Aerospace staff know they won’t be contacted while at home, and that they will be allowed to enjoy their time off. This is a two-way street, though, as Bruch explains. “We’ve tried to increase the autonomy and responsibility of the shopfloor, turning them into focused teams that can make decisions without going through the chain of command – both during the day and out-of-hours,” he says. “We’re not a big company, and it’s hard to be able to commit lots of people to work on each project – it’s often down to individuals having to chip in here and there.”

All this chopping and changing means staff are at risk of projects becoming confused. Bruch, however, has devised a system for ensuring nothing gets missed. “When people leave to go on holiday, we hold a handover meeting to give whoever is picking up that person’s work a good idea of what’s going on and how to deal with any issues that may arise,” he explains. “We also have a re-brief meeting when they return. It’s a trust thing. The person going away knows that their work is in capable hands, and that they shouldn’t need to worry about being contacted.”

AE Aerospace’s approach shows the importance of forming the right behaviours. Too often, says Lightfoot of Ultimate Finance, managers’ expectations are too high. “There’s often the feeling that employees should always be contactable,” he explains. “It’s important for managers and business owners to become aware of how, in the short-term, expecting people to answer emails when they’re at home gets results, but in the long-term it will damage not just the wellbeing of their staff, but the wider business.

“Try to be aware of how it makes employees feel when they arrive at work on a Monday to see a load of emails from the boss from the night before. If they see an email from their manager that was sent at 11pm, they will start feeling like they need to do the same. That anxiety will start to weigh on them and affect their performance.”

Technology – help or hinderance?

We have already touched on the ‘always-on’ nature of work today. No business will be successful without the use of smartphones, laptops and tablets. However, for many, this provides an added distraction. “The topic of technology and work can be very polarising,” says Rob Hiron, account director at Kronos. “Some feel that technology has advanced their sector by aiding in the menial and administrative tasks that used to be done by humans. Some, however, feel that the opposite is the case, and that technology is actually causing productivity to fall.”

Lightfoot says that whether or not technology is a distraction boils down to attitude. “During working hours, I have push notifications for emails turned on, so I can see them as they come in,” he says. “Once I get home, they are turned off, so my phone doesn’t buzz away and I’m not compelled to look at it. That’s not to say I never check my emails at home, once the kids have gone to bed, but having the discipline to not spend all evening on them is important. In leadership roles, it’s often very difficult to ever fully switch off, though. There’s always a sense you could – and should – be doing more.”

Is 9-5 still the best way to make a living?

One answer to striking a balance may be to take a flexible approach to working. This is different to shift work (see box), which can often bring about uncertainty and stress, and instead aims to maximise each employee’s most time at work. “In leadership roles in particular, we’re seeing a move towards effective working at times outside the traditional 9-5,” says Lightfoot. “People work better at different times of day, and companies are starting to realise this. The ability to clock in and out flexibly, as long as you’re hitting your outputs, is changing the way we all work.”

AE Aerospace adheres to this principle. “We’re trying to remove the mindset that says that you must arrive early and stay late, or else you’re a shirker,” says Bruch. “As long as we cover the core hours with core staff, the rest is less important. Allowing people to either start early and finish late, or vice versa, is important to maintain those people in the business. It’s important to note that it’s not flexi-time; staff agree different contracts and working hours and stick to that – otherwise it’s anarchy and we don’t know where anyone is. We have to keep the machines running, so there’d be no point in having two people in at 7.30 and nobody to run them at 9pm. We still need structure, but wherever we have the ability to be flexible, we are.”

Striking a balance between personal and professional lives is a complicated procedure. One the one hand, not allowing your staff time to fully relax at home will cause dissatisfaction, poor performance and wider business – and personal – issues. On the other, taking it too far the other way can lead to a drop in productivity and a lax, demotivated workforce. A good business and its leadership team will be ready to strike that balance to ensure a motivated, productive and happy workforce.

As Peter Bruch concludes: “Work/life balance isn’t just about hours; it’s also about job satisfaction. We’re trying to give people the authority to develop and improve things. The key is that they feel like they’re making a difference. That gives our staff a level of jab satisfaction to ensure they don’t leave work frustrated because they don’t feel like they’re being heard. People have different reasons for being at work. Many are only at work because they need the money and if they were to win the lottery, they would stop working. For some people, the money is important but it’s not the main reason they go to work. They may have aspirations, and some people also like the structure and purpose of having a job they enjoy. We want AE Aerospace to be as enjoyable a place to be as possible – we don’t want people coming in with trepidation on a Monday morning. If they’re enthusiastic, we’re doing great!”