Employers weaken their employees' work-life balance and job performance when they create expectations that work emails should be monitored and responded to during non-work hours.
- Research has shown that expecting employees to answer emails after hours can be detrimental. Instead of improving efficiency, emails after hours hurt job performance.
- There is cause for concern with the "always on" culture. Health issues such as chronic stress and fatigue are linked to too many responsibilities after standard work hours.
- Employers may get into legal trouble for requiring email communications after hours. Emails may be considered compensable for nonexempt employees.
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, research suggests.
Employers damage their employeesꞌ well-being, work-life balance and job performance when they create expectations that work-related emails should be monitored and responded to during non-work hours, according to an Academy of Management study.
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 study's authors wrote.
It's not about the time or effort required to respond to emails, but rather the expectation that 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.
"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 create a constant stressor that precludes an employee from work detachment."
The researchers conducted surveys of 600 working adults, who were recruited from a business school alumni association and LinkedIn interest groups and 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 had for them to respond to emails after work, their levels of psychological detachment from work and emotional exhaustion, and how they felt 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 eight hours a week reading and responding to company-related emails after hours. However, it was the expectation 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 authors wrote.
This lower ability to disconnect from work translates into poorer work-life balance and causes emotional exhaustion, which earlier research has shown to negatively affect job performance.
Lack of work-life balance
The negative effects of feeling the need to respond to emails during non-work hours were greatest for employees who strongly wished to keep their work and family separate. While these family-oriented 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 companies' 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.
Tips to avoid checking email after work
Employees need to be proactive to stop checking emails after work hours. For starters, remove any push notifications from your mobile device. There is no need to receive an instant alert each time you receive a new email. If you're worried about missing an important communication, you can set up your push notifications to only inform you of emails from those on your VIP list.
When you're on your tablet or computer after work, avoid leaving your email server open. Although you may be used to multitasking, you could actually be wasting time by having too many windows or tabs open. Instead, make a schedule for checking emails. As an example, you could decide to only check your work email every couple hours while at home.
Eliminating screen time altogether is a good way to get a break on the weekends. For instance, you could make a goal to have unplugged Sundays where you avoid looking at any electronics for the entire day.
Employers also need to be mindful of not sending work emails after hours. According to law firm Foley & Lardner LLP, emails may be considered compensable for nonexempt employees. If you're only paying for 40 hours, then you may run into issues if you expect employees to respond after hours. To prevent any problems, you can set up your email server to only allow emails to be sent during regular business hours. You could also make policies about email communications, including what times are acceptable to send and receive work-related messages.