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Recharging Your Battery — Disconnect From Your Work Phone to Power Back Up
By Julie Bartlett-Hejira, MSW

Your phone is trying to tell you something. Not with a catchy ringtone or by persistently vibrating on your desk, but with its battery bar. If your battery is fading, it's time to disconnect and power yourself back up.

Frantically trying to find a power cord to recharge the phone so you don't miss any texts, interrupting your own plans to respond, texting a coworker to review the text, reading your work e-mails in bed, panicking if your phone is in another room— does this sound familiar?

Many social work organizations, including child protection agencies, have given their staff work phones to facilitate communication with clients, consultation with management, and contemporaneous case notes. This measure is lauded as a way to stay on top of mandated, time-sensitive paperwork and maintain contact with difficult-to-reach clients. To be sure, it has reduced stress on workers trying to balance their workload demands.

But it comes at a cost. An empirical observation of fellow child protection workers shows they often receive and respond to texts well after hours. Clients, aware that people generally keep their phones on them at all times, feel comfortable about texting workers outside office hours. Social workers are by nature worriers and communicators and may feel compunction to respond (particularly if the case has high-risk elements). Workers who accommodate families' schedules by meeting after the office closes are already putting in long days and now feel obligated to answer late texts. This sets up a dynamic in which boundaries become blurred; clients expect an immediate response, and workers always feel "on." Workers own their piece in this, too, and trust in the after-hours services that require many social service organizations to address urgent situations. At the risk of annoying coworkers, there is hubris in assuming only you can resolve an issue. It may in fact be beneficial for both the worker and the client to be reminded of the boundary of office hours.

Referring specifically to child protection, workers may travel outside their jurisdiction to meet with children/youth, adding considerable travel and commuting time to their day. This is where, again, phones are heralded as a way to ensure timely completion of documentation. Some workers dictate their notes while they're driving, but an iPhone will only accept a short paragraph before pausing; this means a worker, in order to reactivate the dictation feature, is essentially texting while driving.

Cost of Freedom

Cellphones provide us great freedom but, in many ways, because of them, we're more tied to desks than ever. It is unhealthy to constantly be "on" for work-related issues. It deprives one of the joy of living in their own moment. To be constantly responding to texts and calls creates a distraction (and possibly resentment) in their own home where they are only partially present. It establishes a dynamic where workers feel they have to respond because there may be a crisis or angry confrontation the next day if they don't. It increases the likelihood of empathy fatigue. And finally, it neither teaches clients to be self-sufficient nor encourages them to recognize appropriate boundaries. Workers need to let themselves off the hook and exhale.

Suggestions include the following:

• Leave your work phone at work; it is, by definition, a work phone.
• A charged phone should last the day. If your battery is dying, you've been productive and now need to let it—and you—recharge. Your day is over.
• Charge your depleted phone the next morning so you're not tempted to answer it   (putting it on airplane mode will recharge it faster).
• Ensure your e-mails are connected only to your work phone—not your personal phone.
• Change your outgoing message to state the business hours and so you will not be responding to texts or calls outside those hours. And then don't!
• Remind clients when you first meet, and then as needed, of the after-hours emergency service.
• Don't give out your personal number to work-related individuals (including professionals).
• Ask your coworkers to honor your boundaries by not texting your personal phone with work issues.
• If you absolutely must dictate a note while you're driving, call your own work phone and dictate your note to your voice mail; it can then be converted to an e-mail the next day.

We encourage our coworkers to engage in self-care but, often in "do as I say, not as I do" fashion, we succumb to work-worry guilt and do not follow our own advice. It is appropriate and necessary to unplug and reconnect to other rejuvenating aspects of our lives.

— Julie Bartlett-Hejira, MSW, has been a child protection worker with the Children's Aid Society in southwest Ontario for 10 years.