• 01.28.14

Answering Work Emails On Your Phone At Night Makes You Bad At Work The Next Day

An “always on” work style may make you less responsible than you thought.

Answering Work Emails On Your Phone At Night Makes You Bad At Work The Next Day
[Image: Browsing on smartphone via Shutterstock]

Having a job that requires you to be “on” all the time is something of a badge of honor in today’s tenuous economy. It’s also incredibly unhealthy.


There’s one behavior in particular that a new pair of studies found ruined the next morning for workers on the job. Using a smartphone to answer work emails after 9 p.m. led to people feeling less well-rested, engaged, and focused the following morning.

In the first study, researchers from the University of Florida, Michigan State University, and the University of Washington surveyed 82 mid- to high-level managers enrolled in MBA classes first thing in the morning and late afternoon over the course of 10 days. The ages were varied, but nearly half fell between 31 and 40 years old. In the second study, the same researchers from looked at a more diverse sample of 161 employees in a variety of industries.

In both situations, the authors found that smartphone use, as distinguished from other technologies, could be linked to disrupted sleep and disengagement from work the next day. Their results will be published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processing.

They had a couple of theories that could explain the phenomenon. The first revolves around “ego depletion,” or the idea that “continuous acts of self control draw from a limited pool of resources that is vulnerable to depletion.” In other words, we only have so much attention we’re capable of giving and need alone-time to recharge. Missing that crucial period results in less focus, or the need to smash your computer and go scream in the woods.

Their other hypothesis is that smartphones are somewhat specially designed to disrupt sleep. Many of us sleep with them next to our heads, so when they buzz or light up with new messages, they defer our dreams and REM cycles. Lack of sleep also contributes to lower glucose levels and metabolic rates in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, an area linked to self-control.

“Thus, recent research has linked a lack of sleep to ego depletion, which in turn has been linked to breakdowns in the regulation of deviant and unethical behaviors,” the researchers write. (Does this explain Wall Street’s misbehaviors?)

The one silver lining, which showed up the first study, is that much of these effects could possibly be mitigated by “job control,” or the extent to which an individual can decide how to organize his or her work. Maybe this means the ability to work from home some days, a different office layout, or being able to take generous paid maternity or paternity leave knowing a job will be waiting on return. Otherwise, perhaps it’s time we consider turning off our phones at night as less an abdication of responsibility, and more an action that ensures we’re more responsible the following day.

About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data.