The true cost of being always on: Most people spend 7+ hours a week on “unpaid digital labor”

If you work at a warehouse and your boss asks you to stay a few extra hours to help unload a truck, two things most likely happen. First, you can choose to say no. And second, if you do stay, you’ll get paid for that time.

But if you work in an office and your boss sends you an urgent message at 8:36 pm telling you to update a doc, do you still have those same rights? 

“Unpaid digital labor” is a new term used to describe everything from late-night emails to texting with your boss before work. According to a recent study, UK workers put in a total of 2 billion unpaid hours of work in 2018 alone. That’s over an hour a day per person! 

You probably don’t think it’s a big deal to quickly check your inbox before bed. But the constant nagging thought (or threat) of unseen work obligations can have serious consequences.

(We’ve written before about how being “always-on” leads to stress, decreased productivity, and eventually burnout). 

So how do you know just how much unpaid labor you’re putting in? And how can you minimize it? 

The problem with “work/life integration”

Most of us take the 8-hour workday for granted. But back in the late 1800s, workers fought for a hard separation between “work” and “life”. Today, however, technology has blurred that boundary.

Where we once had work/life balance, companies now love to talk about work/life integration. And according to many people, this is for the better.

Here’s how the HR department at UC Berkley describes it:

“We use the term Work/Life Integration instead of Work/Life Balance because the latter evokes a binary opposition between work and life… [and] a sense of competition between the two elements. 

“Work/Life Integration instead is an approach that creates more synergies between all areas that define ‘life’: work, home/family, community, personal well-being, and health.”

For the “work/life integrators” checking email a few times before bed is a small price to pay for more flexibility and control over how, where, and when we work.  

It’s a great idea in theory.

But in real life? Turns out that instead of more “synergies”, we just end up working more

According to our research, 92% of people say they regularly work in the evenings and on weekends while 40% of workers use their work computers after 10 pm during the week.

Even worse, these actions feel out of our control.

There’s a herd mentality when it comes to being “always-on”. The more after-hours messages that get sent, the more you feel like you’re missing out on something important if you don’t check in on a regular basis. 

And when rewards and praise go to the people who answer emails at all hours, why wouldn’t you do the same? 

As Will Stronge writes in The Guardian:

“Too many of us know the feeling: you sign a contract for a nine-to-five job, but you find yourself answering emails, texts or even phone calls well into the evening. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like the working day ever truly ends.”

The problem is that “unpaid digital labor” goes beyond just working for free. As Stronge explains, in the UK, workload pressure is the single greatest cause of work-related illness

In other words, those late-night emails are quite literally making you sick. 

(Are you an HR professional looking to help your team stay healthy and happy right now? Check out BambooHR’s 6th annual HR Virtual Summit.)

How to track exactly how much “unpaid digital labor” you’re doing each day

So how do you stop the pressure to be always on?

It starts with an awareness of just how much you’re contributing to the problem. 

The main issue with tracking your unpaid digital labor is that it comes in tiny increments. It’s pretty much impossible to manually track the 3 minutes you checked email while making dinner or the 10 minutes on Slack before bed. But these small check-ins adds up–both in time and well-being.

That’s where a tool like RescueTime comes into play. 

RescueTime is an automatic time tracker that observes how you’re spending your time and gives you in-depth reports and insights such as:

  • How much time you’re working each day
  • Which apps and websites you use the most (and when)
  • How much work you’re doing outside of working hours
  • How productive you’re being overall

Let’s look at how you can use RescueTime to track and hopefully minimize your unpaid labor hours. 

Step 1. Get a baseline of how you’re spending your time

Before you can start reducing your unpaid labor you need to get a baseline of how much of it you’re doing.

We’re notoriously bad at underestimating how long we spend on tasks thanks to biases like the Planning Fallacy. So the only way to get an accurate baseline is to actually track your time. 

Unfortunately, a recent study found that only 33% of workers say they regularly track their time spent on emails (with 40% saying they’ve never tracked it).

“Tracking” your time conjures all sorts of images of spreadsheets and writing down your tasks ever 5 minutes. But RescueTime does it automatically (the goal here is to do less work, after all).

For example, I’m going to look at my weekly dashboard to see my average breakdown of tasks. 

This is a great opportunity to see how much time you’re actually spending on your most important work (in my case, this is categorized as Design & Composition).

However, it also gives you a high-level breakdown of everything else you spend your time on. For example, the above report shows that I’m spending 24% of my day on communication apps.

This is a good start. But this view doesn’t tell me how much of that time is outside my normal working hours. 

Step 2. Create a custom “work hours” filter

To figure this out, you need to create a custom work hours filter for your daily schedule

Head to Tools > Advanced Filters

From here, you can set a custom schedule of when you’re normally working.

Using the advanced options button you can also add multiple time periods of the day. For example, if you want your work hours to exclude your lunch break from noon to one.

Now you can separate your work from “non-work” hours in all of your reports.

Step 3. Dig into your communication and work time outside of work

Next, let’s see how much unpaid digital labor we’re actually doing.

To start, head back to the main dashboard and scroll down to the Spotlight on this week:

17% of all my time logged was outside normal working hours.

This gives you a good overview of how you’re spending time inside and outside of your work hours. 

To get more specific, check your category reports under Reports > Categories and pick something like Communication & Scheduling.

Email and communication are sneaking into my non-work hours!

If you switch to the By Hour view, you can see exactly how much time you spent on emails and chats during each hour of the day. 

Step 4. Set Alerts and time limits on your non-work time

Knowing you’re doing “unpaid digital labor” is one thing. But how do you get control of it? 

You can use RescueTime to give you real-time feedback on when you’re working too much using what we call Alerts

For example, I’ve set up an Alert to let me know when I’ve spent more than 15 minutes on productive work during off-work hours

You can even set a custom message that comes up to remind you why you don’t want to be working right now.

Step 5. Have a data-backed conversation with your work about expectations  

Personal data like this can help you change your habits. But it’s also great for backing up conversations with your manager and coworkers. 

One of the main reasons unpaid digital labor happens is because people don’t set proper expectations. We assume that everyone “just knows” how to communicate and we don’t need to spell out specific rules. When in fact, 76% of people say they’ve never spoken to a colleague or manager about email expectations.

This data gives you a good reason to have that conversation. Walk them through what you’ve found and discuss the results:

  • Does your manager know you’re spending an hour or more a day on unpaid digital labor? 
  • Are there unspoken expectations to respond outside of work hours? 
  • Is it OK for you to be offline at certain times? 
  • Do you need to readjust your workload or delegate certain tasks? 

If you feel uncomfortable talking about your workload, data helps paint a picture of where you need help and how you can reshape your workday to work for you. 

Learn more about how to have a data-driven conversation with your manager or boss.

To do our best work, we need clear boundaries and expectations 

While countries like France and Italy have implemented “the right to disconnect” policies that require companies to set rules around communication outside of work hours, for most people it’s up to you to understand just how much of your free time you’re giving to your job. 

And you need data to do this. 

Personal data is honest and accurate. It doesn’t underestimate or hold back. So use it to get real with yourself and how much you’re working. And then use that information to reshape your day and protect your mental and physical well-being.

Supercharge your focus with data. Sign up for RescueTime today for free!

Sign Up for the Newsletter

Want to learn more about spending your time well and doing more meaningful work? Get our latest blog posts in your inbox every week.

Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.