There's an epidemic no one talks much about because it's rarely seen that way. Even so, it makes no distinctions from one industry to the next; I've seen this bad habit infect the ranks of Fortune 500 companies in technology, retail, manufacturing, health care, pharmaceuticals, hospitality—you name it. The good news, though, is that it's easy to diagnose.
In my experience of working with managers and executives, that starts by asking a single question: "How many of you send out emails from home at night?" Nearly everyone raises their hand.
Reading that may only inspire a shrug—you probably do the same thing. And you might roll your eyes to learn that the pernicious habit of answering work emails after hours is the widespread problem I'm talking about. Far from being news, we've grown amazingly adept at discussing overwork in general and email overload in particular.
But there's one thing that might surprise you about that late-night emailing habit: It's overwhelmingly voluntary, and therefore largely avoidable.
After the resounding yesses I usually elicit by asking professionals about their evening email habits, I'll pose a second question: "How many of you expect your employees to answer those emails right away?" Only about 20% raise their hands.
Then I’ll ask, "How many of you answer emails from your boss at night?" Around 80% of hands go up.
"Based on what we’ve just seen," I continue, "do you think there’s around an 80% chance that your boss doesn’t expect an answer right away, the same way that you don’t?" The response: blank stares.
We’ve created a prison of expectations in the corporate world, as smartphones erase any sense of boundaries between "on hours" and "off hours." And with the economy putting more and more pressure on companies and employees to do more with less, we’ve got a perfect recipe for burnout and stress in the workplace.
We tend to blame overbearing work cultures on that erosion, and justifiably so. But our own habits and our office's unspoken pressures can be mutually reinforcing. Much of the pressure to be "on" during evening hours, weekends, or vacations is coming from workers themselves, not their bosses. In other words, we’re operating under a mass delusion, and it’s making us miserable.
It’s true that the amount of work today’s managers and execs are expected to handle is growing. About 80% of the managers I work with are in the same job they were in a year ago, but their responsibilities have grown. That’s a strong sign that people have gotten used to operating in a "do more with less" environment.
Still, my poll results, while unscientific, are amazingly consistent. They reveal a clear pattern of behavior that isn’t doing anyone any good—and in letting it persist, we’re taking time and energy away from the habits and tools that will increase our productivity, focus, and well-being, and enable us to work more efficiently and effectively.
The fact is that all this frenzied emailing after hours—even if it seems quick, easy, and harmless—is cutting time off from important things like relaxing, socializing, and spending time with family. Sure, we need these activities for our general health. But there’s also a more specific reason why taking time off is so crucial at the end of the day in particular.
When you spend so many daylight hours in work mode, it creates a physiological reaction that affects every cell in your body. Commonly known as the "fight-or-flight" response, the mental state in which you're constantly putting out fires keeps your nervous system on high alert.
If you spend most of your waking hours like this, your sympathetic nervous system puts you on a continuous pump of adrenaline and norepinephrine, keeping your heart rate and breathing up, constricting your blood vessels, and tightening your muscles. Your body is quite literally primed to either fight off an attacker or flee. If you're in this mode every day for ever-lengthening stretches, you may even stop noticing it. But the effects on your body and mind can be really damaging. Over time, excess stress hormones can lead to chronic headaches, IBS, insomnia, high blood pressure, and depression.
When you aren't working, though, your body relaxes into the "rest-and-digest" response. If fight-or-flight is your body’s gas pedal, this one is the brakes. And just like you would in a car, you need to use both the gas and the brakes to stay safe and balanced as you drive ahead.
The good news is that there’s a solution to ending the mindless loop of answering emails all night long, so you can give your body and mind a chance to wind down properly. And it starts by remembering that your expectations may exceed your boss's. Rather than make assumptions, just ask: "Do you expect me to answer emails if you send them after work hours?" There’s an 80% chance that he or she will say no.
Once you’ve gotten peace of mind about unplugging at night, try these tips to break any late-emailing habits, and allow the rest-and-digest response to do its work:
- Take a few deep breaths from your belly when you first walk in the door, to activate your rest-and-digest system.
- Stick your phone in a drawer for a couple of hours in the evening (or preferably all evening).
- Take time to do something you enjoy every evening, without fail. Cook a meal, play with your kids, take a walk with your partner, work out, listen to music, dance. Notice how you feel when you’re done.
- From that more relaxed place, check email if you choose, but put a cap on the amount of time you’ll spend on it. Fifteen minutes is a good start.
You might actually find you can connect with your family and friends. You might not have a migraine or an upset stomach. You might not think about work for a few hours. Yeah, your boss might be waiting on a response. But there’s around an 80% chance that she’s not.
And even if she is, it can probably wait—more than likely, you'll both be better off if it does.