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Providing down time to prevent worker burnout

Shirin Majid holds her daughter Ella at their

Shirin Majid holds her daughter Ella at their home in Manhattan. Majid, who works for the Internet startup, Quirky, is home for the week during her company's quarterly blackout break from work. "If you know that your boss is checked out, you're going to relax a bit and not worry that you're going to get an email," she said. (Nov. 26, 2013) Credit: AP

Volkswagen turns off some employees' email 30 minutes after their shifts end. Goldman Sachs is urging junior staff to take weekends off. And Manhattan start-up Quirky has resorted to quarterly "blackout" weeks.

This corporate beneficence isn't an indication that employers are becoming kinder and gentler: It's about the bottom line. After years in which the ease of instant communication via email and smartphones allowed bosses to place greater and greater demands on white-collar workers, some companies are beginning to set limits, recognizing that successful employees must be able to escape from work.

"Industry is now responding," said Cary Cooper, a professor of organizational psychology and health at Lancaster University in London, who says the imperative to be constantly reachable by iPhone or tablet is taking a toll on the work delivered at the office.

After hours, physical presence has been replaced by the next best thing -- a virtual one. Many employees fear switching off, instead deciding to work on vacation, during dinner and in bed with the help of smartphones, laptops and tablet computers.

But employers are starting to see the downside of that culture and are focusing on how to keep workers from burning out.

One strategy, which Goldman Sachs has been trying, is to make people feel less at risk in their jobs. That's not easy in most companies, much less so in investment banking, infamous for its competitive environment and grueling hours.

To keep junior analysts from burning out in the attempt to prove their worth, the bank has decided to start hiring first-year analysts as permanent employees, instead of taking them on as contract workers. It is also encouraging them to not work weekends.

"The goal is for our analysts to want to be here for a career," said David Solomon, global head of investment banking. "This is a marathon, not a sprint."

Cooper agrees, saying companies that don't address the issue will lose employees "to companies with better work/life balance, where they don't have to work 19-hour days."

Still, it's hard for companies to control the amount of technology used at home as it is so integral to modern life. Volkswagen addressed the issue in a blunt, if effective, manner -- by deactivating some workers' email accounts once their shifts were over.

To get everyone, from intern to CEO, to not overdo it with the work hours, some companies have resorted to bolder measures.

Quirky, a Manhattan based start-up that shepherds inventions to the marketplace, has instituted a "blackout" week once a quarter during which no one except customer service representatives are allowed to work, lest employees be tempted to check email.

"We all dropped pencils together," said CEO Ben Kaufman. "People were getting burned out. They needed to see other things besides their desk."

Having the message come from the top was important for Shirin Majid, 39, Quirky's head of digital marketing, who laments not having enough time to spend with her husband and 9-month-old daughter. In 17 years in public relations, she has yet to take a vacation devoid of that dreaded phone call from the office.

But not during a recent vacation. No one could call from the office -- since no one was at the office.

"If you know that your boss is checked out, you're going to relax a bit and not worry that you're going to get an email," she said.

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