Leadership initiatives to manage availability creep and overwork

  • Market Insight 16 May 2023 16 May 2023
  • Asia Pacific

  • Employment, Pensions & Immigration

There is a real and mounting concern about availability creep and the impact it can have on employees. In 2021, the University of South Australia conducted a survey of over 2200 academics and professional employees in the tertiary education sector and the results clearly reflected this phenomenon.

The survey results found that 50% of the respondents reported often receiving work related communications (including texts and calls) on the weekend and that 36% of respondents reported that it was considered normal in their organisation to respond immediately to digital communications. Of course, a survey of employees in a great number of professional services industries will undoubtedly reflect similar results. 

The workplace factors that facilitate and exacerbate the phenomenon of availability creep need to be carefully considered by organisations as part of conducting a risk assessment into psychosocial hazards in the workplace and as part of considering initiatives that can be implemented to address this problem. In particular, organisations need to identify the risk factors – hybrid/remote working arrangements, the technology used by employees to perform their work, and the routine methods of communication within teams are some key examples which would be considered as part of a psychosocial risk assessment. 

What is availability creep and what can be done about it?

“Availability creep” is a term which describes the increasing encroachment on personal and out of work hours. Availability creep is the pressure felt by employees to be constantly available to perform their work duties. This is facilitated, in large part, by developments which are meant to be positive and to increase flexibility and efficiency, such as the technology we use to work remotely (i.e. work phones and company laptops). 

Unfortunately, the availability of these technologies which make our lives easier can also result in the feeling that one has to be available all the time because of how easy it is to check an email or take a call, at any time, anywhere in the world. 

Owing to the availability of the above technologies and the proliferation of hybrid working arrangements, we have also seen a recasting of a ‘sick day’.1 With hybrid arrangements, workers are reporting a greater tendency to work through periods of mild illness or injury at home, rather than taking sick leave to recover.2 This is another way that availability creep can manifest and negatively impact on employee wellbeing. 

In April 2021, Victoria Police introduced a “right to disconnect clause” in its enterprise agreement which provided that state managers and supervisors were only entitled to contact employees out of hours during emergencies or if employees were compensated for their time. 

More recently, the Fair Work Amendment (Right to Disconnect) Bill (Right to Disconnect Bill) was introduced by Greens Leader Adam Bandt on 20 March 2023. The Right to Disconnect Bill proposes the introduction of a right in the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) to disconnect outside of working hours. The proposed amendment states that: 

  • an employer must not contact an employee outside of work hours, unless in the case of an emergency or if the employee receives an availability allowance; and 
  • an employee is not required to monitor, read or respond to any type of communication from an employer outside of work hours, unless they are receiving an availability allowance. 

The concept of the right to disconnect is a growing global trend with countries including France, Italy, Spain and Belgium already introducing related laws aimed at protecting workers’ rights in this capacity.

The good news is that while the phenomenon of sending communications at all hours is not going anywhere, organisations can implement very simple initiatives at the leadership level. These initiatives go to alleviating the pressure that exists (or may simply just be perceived) to come from the top down to be available 24/7. These initiatives also go to modelling positive and healthy workplace behaviours to colleagues and signal that an organisation truly espouses these values (that is, walking the walk). 

An important thing to note in the context of these recommendations is that everyone’s working schedule and working life looks different. This may be because of personal circumstances or because the “traditional” working hours will not look the same across different industries (and also different levels/roles within those industries). The below initiatives are generally applicable but can also be adapted depending on what is appropriate in a particular industry. 

1. Send a clear message 

As set out above, technology exists to make life easier. There is, of course, no issue at all with sending emails or attending to tasks at a time that is convenient to you. For some, a convenient hour is at 8PM after one has already left work to exercise and cook dinner. For others, a convenient hour is 7AM after which that person might attend to family duties such as school drop offs. 

In these cases, it may be beneficial for senior personnel to communicate the timeframes for responding to that communication. For example, “Tomorrow, please could you review this document and draft…” or “When you get into the office today, please can you send me…” can make a world of difference to a more junior colleague in relation to setting expectations. It may be as simple as stating “No need to look at this tonight, but by Friday afternoon, could you…

Another way of sending a clear message could be through the inclusion of an email signature. Some examples are: 

  • I have sent this email at a time that is convenient to me. Please do not feel obliged to read or respond to this email outside of your usual working hours. 
  • I work flexible hours and my working day may look different to your working day. I do not expect that you will read or action this communication outside your usual working hours. 
  • Our organisation works flexibly across time zones. If you have received this communication outside your usual working hours, please do not feel that you are required to read or action it urgently unless I have otherwise advised. 

2. Choose the right means of communication 

We have many different means of communication available to us. The general consensus is that a call or a text message will be read and responded to quicker than an email or a letter. Accordingly, when sending a non-urgent communication outside work hours, consider whether it is appropriate and necessary to send a text or use an instant messaging service (which may increase the pressure to provide a quick response). 

3. Be a role model for work/life balance 

Availability creep is particularly detrimental as it reduces the available time employees have to restore and replenish themselves, which can contribute to overall reductions in productivity and risk burnout. Leaders should model good behaviours in relation to work/life balance. This may look like “loudly leaving” or discussing after-work plans with colleagues (such as spending time with family or leaving to exercise). 

Leaders should take opportunities to impress their organisation’s values on employees and reinforcing that work/life balance is key to a successful career. 

4. Proactively identify availability creep 

Conversely, leaders should proactively recognise when employees may be experiencing significant availability creep. For example, if an employee is responsive at all hours, it may be worth a brief and casual check in as to whether that employee is responding because it is convenient for them or whether they feel that they are required to do so (e.g. because they believe that a particular task requires them to do so). This can be a valuable opportunity to discuss work priorities and ensure that work is being performed outside of traditional working hours for the right reasons. 

Key takeaways

Globally, the way work is performed has gone through major changes in the past decade. Organisations need to make sure that they are using a current approach to dealing with psychosocial hazards in the workplace that reflects modern technologies and working arrangements. 

As set out above, a practical approach for organisations is to conduct a psychosocial risk assessment which assesses the particular hazards arising within a workplace (including the factors that can give rise to availability creep and overwork). Organisations then need to ensure that risk control measures are implemented to eliminate or minimise these risks. The list above reflects that these measures do not need to come at a great cost to organisations. Rather, it may simply be a matter of ensuring that leaders are well trained and equipped to deal with psychosocial hazards and are in a position to model best practices to employees. 

If you have any queries in relation to psychosocial hazards in the workplace, please do not hesitate to contact us. 

1Matt Bungard, ‘How working from home has recast the role of a sick day’, Sydney Morning Herald (online, 19 January 2019)


Stay up to date with Clyde & Co

Sign up to receive email updates straight to your inbox!