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Updated Jan 26, 2024

What After-Hours Emails Really Do to Your Employees

Constant communication and scrutiny can actually hurt your team's job performance.

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Marisa Sanfilippo, Business Strategy Insider and Senior Writer
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You may think having your employees respond to emails after work and on weekends improves productivity, but research suggests that encouraging your staff to stay in constant communication actually hurts their job performance.

Employers damage their employees’ well-being, work-life balance and job performance when they create expectations that work-related emails should be monitored and responded to during nonwork hours, according to an Academy of Management study. To identify and prevent employee burnout, business owners and managers should be aware of the downsides of expecting employees to be available constantly. [Read related article: Professional Email Etiquette]

Dangers of always being readily available through email

“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 Academy of Management study’s authors wrote. 

Here’s a look at the significant negative repercussions of this always-on mentality.

Did You Know?Did you know
Only 24 percent of employees report never checking email after hours, according to Statista. That leaves a whopping 76 percent of employees who check their work email during nonbusiness hours.

Higher employee stress

The problem with after-hours emails isn’t necessarily the time and effort required to respond to them. Instead, the unrealistic expectation that employees should work constantly and respond to emails at all hours can significantly heighten workplace stress. 

“Organizational expectations are the main culprit of individual inability to disconnect,” the 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 creates a constant stressor that precludes an employee from work detachment.”

The researchers conducted surveys of 600 working adults recruited from a business school alumni association and LinkedIn interest groups. The participants’ jobs spanned various industries and organizations.

The first survey asked the following: 

  • How many hours a week participants devoted to after-hours emails
  • The expectations their employer had for them to respond to emails after work
  • Their levels of psychological detachment from work and emotional exhaustion
  • How they felt about having to consider work issues while at home

A follow-up survey a week later inquired about their work-life balance.

The study’s authors discovered that participants spent an average of eight hours a week reading and responding to company-related emails after hours. However, the expectation that they must respond to emails caused the most significant 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 authors wrote.

This diminished ability to disconnect from work translates to a poorer work-life balance and causes emotional exhaustion, which has been shown to hurt job performance.

TipTip
Business owners and managers must keep the lines of communication open with employees to help create a positive company culture. Ask employees if they feel overwhelmed and obligated to answer emails after hours, and clarify your expectations.

Increased risk, decreased productivity

Multitasking is often thought of as a way to get more done, but studies show that switching between tasks is actually a productivity killer. An American Psychological Association study on multitasking revealed that juggling multiple duties at once — for example, working on a project while checking email — causes overall productivity and efficiency to plummet.

When you switch from one task to another, your brain takes time to shift to the new task’s demands, potentially leading to errors. While switching between minimal-concentration tasks, such as watching TV and folding laundry, isn’t likely to lead to a disaster, doing too much at once, such as caring for your family while answering important work emails, can shortchange everyone involved.

Here’s another, more concrete aspect to consider: If an employee is frequently contacted outside the office, they may be tempted to check email while driving or while engaged in another risky situation, thereby putting themselves and everyone around them in harm’s way.

A study on workers’ email habits revealed that 10 percent of employees reported constantly checking their emails outside their daily work hours. That means that, while driving, cooking and spending time with their families, they were multitasking in a way that made them less engaged and potentially put them at risk.

Did You Know?Did you know
Creating a paid-time-off (PTO) policy for your employees can reduce turnover and alleviate employee stress and absenteeism.

Lack of work-life balance

The adverse effects of feeling the need to respond to after-hours emails were most significant for employees who strongly wished to keep their work and family lives separate. While family-oriented employees are 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 impedes their good intentions, leading to frustration.

The Academy of Management study’s authors believe that employees who aren’t as concerned about keeping their work and personal lives completely separate may actually have an easier time disconnecting because their preferences don’t conflict with their companies’ expectations.

How the rise in remote work contributed to an “always on” work culture

After the pandemic hit in 2020, many professionals switched to a remote work model. While some worked from home temporarily, managing a remote workforce has become commonplace for many companies. Telecommuting has numerous upsides for workers and businesses and can be a more convenient arrangement. However, it has blurred the boundaries between work and personal time. 

As a result, many at-home workers believe they must be “always on.” As soon as they receive an email, even during nonbusiness hours, they feel compelled to respond. Others might find themselves working later because they no longer have a commute, or they may lose track of their hours and overwork themselves. 

Many post-pandemic remote workers struggle with maintaining work-life boundaries. In fact, according to Buffer’s State of Remote Work report, 22 percent of remote employees said trying to unplug from work was their biggest struggle. This was the third-most-difficult challenge of remote work — behind staying home too often and loneliness — cited in the study. 

Additionally, the study found that a whopping 81 percent of remote workers said they check work emails outside of work hours, including on the weekend (63 percent) and on vacation (34 percent).

Tips to avoid checking email after work

To boost productivity and achieve a better work-life balance, employees must be proactive about not checking email after hours. Here are some best practices for both employees and managers.

1. Turn off push notifications.

Consider disabling push notifications — the alerts you receive when you get an email, Slack message, instant message or other form of communication — on your mobile device.

There’s no need to be alerted instantly every time you receive a new email. If you’re worried about missing an important communication, set up your push notifications to inform you of emails or messages only from senders on your VIP list.

2. Close browser tabs.

When you’re on a tablet or computer after work, close your email application and apps such as Facebook, Slack and other messaging channels. Although you may be used to multitasking, you could actually be wasting time by having too many windows or tabs open because it distracts you and causes you to get off track.

Instead, establish a schedule for checking emails. For example, check email and other messages only every two hours while at home, or make a point of signing off at a particular time.

3. Set screen-time limits.

Eliminating screen time is a good way to get a break on the weekends. For example, you could make a goal of having “unplugged Sundays,” when you avoid looking at electronics for the entire day. You can also consider checking your email only once over the weekend.

TipTip
If your employees struggle while juggling work and home life, consider letting them work remotely, whether part time or full time. Remote workers are more productive, and working from home can help foster a positive work-life balance.

How employers can set after-hours boundaries

Employers want healthy, happy employees and a productive business. Although the norms vary among industries, it’s essential to set boundaries and explain your expectations for employees’ after-hours availability.

Employers must also consider the legal ramifications of after-hours work. According to law firm Foley & Lardner LLP, emails may be considered compensable for nonexempt employees. If you’re paying an employee for only 40 hours, you may face issues if you expect them to respond to emails after hours.

To prevent problems and boost employee morale, consider setting up your email server to allow emails to be sent only during regular business hours. You could also implement policies about email communications, including acceptable times to send and receive work-related messages. Outline your policies and expectations in your employee handbook.

By encouraging employees to be less available by email during their off-hours, employers promote a healthier work-life balance and help team members reduce workplace stress, ultimately increasing job satisfaction and performance.

Striking a remote work-life balance

Employers have many reasons to encourage a positive, healthy work-life balance, especially for remote workers. Numerous challenges, including potential legal issues and risks of workplace burnout, can arise if you expect your employees to be “always on.” 

To combat these concerns, clarify to your workers that you do not expect them to respond to communications outside working hours. Additionally, try your best to follow this rule yourself, leading by example.

Sammi Caramela contributed to this article. 

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Marisa Sanfilippo, Business Strategy Insider and Senior Writer
Marisa Sanfilippo is an award-winning advertising and marketing expert who uses her skills and hands-on experience to help a variety of companies — perhaps most notably, finance-focused businesses — attract customers, generate revenue and strengthen their brands. She advises and executes on top marketing strategies and tactics for email and social media marketing, print marketing, events, partnerships and more. Sanfilippo's expertise has been tapped by companies like First Financial Credit Union, McGraw Credit Union, Priority Payments Local and iink Payments. She has hosted webinars and in-person workshops to educate business owners on marketing best practices and works with RevGenius, a group that brings together sales, marketing and customer success professionals to trade tips on B2B go-to-market strategies geared toward scaling SaaS companies.
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