It’s 9 p.m. and you suddenly remember that you wanted to ask your employee about an upcoming project. Before you fire off an email, ask yourself, "Is this urgent?" If you’re sending the email simply because you don’t want to forget, your employee may not know your response expectations, and this can cause stress that negatively impacts your staff’s productivity and performance.
In a new report called "Exhausted But Unable to Disconnect," professors from Lehigh University, Virginia Tech, and Colorado State University found that an "always on" culture may prevent employees from fully disengaging from work, causing stress.
"It’s easy to depersonalize people when you’re using email, because you don’t see the effect you’re having," says coauthor William Becker, associate professor of management at Virginia Tech. "When boundaries are blurred, it can create all kinds of problems. A lot of companies see the good parts of using email, and don’t think beyond that."
In the study, participants reported spending an average of eight hours a week doing company-related emails after hours. The greater the amount of time spent on after-hours work, the less successful the employees were at detaching from work. This translated into poorer work-family balance, and even contributed to emotional exhaustion, which Becker says has been shown by prior research to negatively affect job performance.
"What we saw over time was that it’s the expectation that makes you exhausted," says Becker. "It wasn’t about the time spent on email; it was assumed availability. Having an anticipation of work created a constant stressor."
The authors of the study, which is being presented at the upcoming annual meeting of the Academy of Management, call on leaders to create formal practices that establish expectations that can mitigate the negative effects of an always-on culture. Some companies instill a strict ban on after-hours emails, while others simply state that emails after hours don’t have to be returned until work hours the next day.
"Having a policy means the employee doesn’t have to interpret the expectation on their own," says Becker. "It goes a long way toward setting what is okay, and relieves the employee of the feeling that they have to always be available. It also serves as a signal of organizational caring and support."
If your company doesn’t have a policy, managers can help employees know expectations by creating their own departmental policy or at the least by being clear in the subject line or beginning of the email message.
"You can say, ‘I don’t want you to work on this now, but please do this tomorrow,’" says Becker. "It could go a long way. Maybe your company doesn’t need a policy, but you should always be thinking about the impact of sending an email at 10 p.m."
Becker says that some companies have already realized that after-hours emails hurt a company’s bottom line. For example, management consultants Boston Consulting Group guarantees one email-free evening a week, while health care consultancy Vynamic prohibits correspondence after 10 p.m. and on weekends.
"European firms have been ahead of those in the U.S. in this regard," says Becker. In May, France passed a labor reform law that makes weekend emails illegal.
"All the studies show there is far more work-related stress today than there used to be, and that the stress is constant," Benoit Hamon of the French National Assembly said in an interview with the BBC. "Employees physically leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash—like a dog. The texts, the messages, the emails—they colonize the life of the individual to the point where he or she eventually breaks down."
While France has taken a step in the right direction, there is still a long way to go on both sides of the Atlantic, says Becker. "Perhaps by revealing the damage these expectations can cause, our research will improve matters, as this is a problem that should be relatively amenable to solution," he says.