Checking email after leaving the office can be an emotional roller coaster for many employees, new research suggests.
The nature, tone and sender of each email not only elicits varying emotional responses, but also plays a role in how much the habit of checking work email negatively affects an employee's work-life balance, according to a study recently published in the Academy of Management Journal.
Emails perceived as having a more negative tone tend to increase workers' anger, while those perceived as positive in tone lead to more happiness, said Wendy Boswell, one of the study's authors and a professor at Texas A&M University.
Past research had found that simply staying connected after-hours often fosters a negative work-life balance, but the purpose of this study was to determine what specific factors had the largest effect on employees' happiness.
"This study aimed to focus on, what is it about emails, what are the elements or characteristics, that have the strongest effects?" Boswell told Business News Daily.
After studying 341 working adults over a seven-day period, the study's authors found that the negative emotions employees experience when checking email after normal work hours occur when the email is perceived as negative in tone, even if the sender didn't mean it to be. [How to Prevent Email from Taking Over Your Life ]
"It's the perception of the tone that has an effect," Boswell told Business News Daily. The length of time that is required to deal with an email also affects employees' emotions and work-life balance. The more time employees have to spend responding to an email, the angrier they get, which ultimately takes time away from their personal life, Boswell said.
But checking emails after work hours isn't always bad. Boswell said messages that convey basic and quick information that allow the individual to easily and quickly complete tasks can help employees stay on top of their workload.
"Certainly supervisors, or other employees, offering positive encouragement or feedback in their email correspondence can foster positive emotional responses from employees," Boswell said. "So, quick emails are not necessarily a bad thing, and clearly positive emails after-hours are a good thing."
Despite the potential for some positive emotions, employees in general don't appreciate receiving emails from their bosses after-hours.
"Employees responded negatively to emails from supervisors in general compared to from others, regardless of the nature of the email," Boswell said. "Individuals perhaps felt obligated to deal with the email and/or felt that their supervisor was particularly intrusive in their personal life."
The study also revealed that workers who have bad relationships with their bosses tended to have negative reactions to all of their after-hours work emails, regardless of who sent the email.
"Another interesting, and somewhat surprising, finding is that employees also responded with anger even to emails from [nonsupervisors] if they had a dysfunctional supervisor relationship, suggesting negative patterns of interactions with supervisors [is associated] with negative reactions to work correspondence in general," Boswell said.
Based on the research, employees should think about their preferences and implement after-hours email boundaries that best align with their own personal and family demands, Boswell advised.
"There can be positives to getting work done and staying on top of things if it can be done quickly, and some people don't seem to mind completing work tasks while in the home domain," she said. "But the more time-consuming correspondence can really detract from one's personal life, and this is particularly frustrating to someone that prefers to keep it all separate."
The study's authors also said the research sheds some light on how bosses should approach emailing their employees after normal work hours.
"It's critical to clearly express the affective tone and level of attention required when sending emails to an employee after-hours," Boswell said.
She said supervisors should make sure the email is encouraging, by saying "thank you" or "I appreciate what you've completed thus far." They should also ensure the email clearly conveys expectations for completion by saying, "Don't worry about working on this until tomorrow."
In addition, emails that clearly convey positive information, such as, "The report looks great," or "The client is pleased," should definitely not wait until the next day, as those types of emails are the most likely to trigger positive emotions.
The study was co-authored by Marcus Butts, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, and William Becker, an assistant professor at Texas Christian University.