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Build Your Career Work-Life Balance

What After-Hours Emails Really Do to Your Employees

What After-Hours Emails Really Do to Your Employees
Credit: Halfpoint/Shutterstock

While you may think that having your employees respond to emails after work and on the weekends is a good way to increase productivity, encouraging them to do so actually hurts their job performance, new research suggests.

Employers damage their employeesꞌ well-being and work-life balance and weaken their job performance when they create expectations that work-related emails should be monitored and responded to during non-work hours, according to study scheduled to be presented at this summer's annual meeting of the Academy of Management.

"An 'always on' culture with high expectations to monitor and respond to emails during non-work time may prevent employees from ever fully disengaging from work, leading to chronic stress and emotional exhaustion," the study's authors wrote.

It's not about the time or effort required to respond to emails, but rather about the expectations they should do so. The study's authors said this type of culture creates anticipatory stress and hinders employeesꞌ ability to fully detach from work. [See Related Story: Checking Work Email at Night? Here's Why You Should Stop]

"Organizational expectations are the main culprit of individual inability to disconnect," the study's authors wrote. "Even during the times when there are no actual emails to act upon, the mere norm of availability and the actual anticipation of work create a constant stressor that precludes an employee from work detachment."

For the study, researchers conducted surveys of 600 working adults who were recruited from a business school alumni association and LinkedIn interest groups and who had jobs in a wide variety of industries and organizations.

The first survey asked how many hours a week participants devoted to after-hours email, what type of expectations their employer has for them to respond to emails after work, their levels of psychological detachment from work and emotional exhaustion and how they feel about having to think about work issues while at home. A follow-up survey a week later inquired about their work-life balance.

The study's authors discovered that the participants spent an average of about 8 hours a week reading and responding to company-related emails after hours, with greater amounts associated with less ability to detach from work. However, it was the expectations to read and respond to emails that caused greater issues.

"Diminished work detachment due to email-related overload is not necessarily caused by the time spent on handling the work email, but instead is strongly tied to anticipatory stress caused by organizational expectations," the study's authors wrote.

This lowered ability to disconnect translates into poorer work-family balance and causes emotional exhaustion, which, earlier research has shown, negatively affects job performance.

The negative effects of feeling the need to respond to emails during non-work hours was greatest on employees who strongly wish to keep their work and family separate. While these employees are generally more likely to detach from work than those who don't care as much about work bleeding into their personal lives, the insistence on after-hours email availability upsets their ability to do so.

The study's authors believe that that employees who don’t care greatly about keeping their work and personal lives completely separate may actually have an easier time disconnecting since their personal preferences do not conflict with their company's expectations.

The study was authored by Liuba Belkin, an associate professor at Lehigh University; William Becker, an associate professor at Virginia Tech University; and Samantha Conroy, an assistant professor at Colorado State University.

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has nearly 15 years experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.