Checking email after work can hurt your work-life balance, study finds.
Photograph by Thomas Trutschel Photothek —Getty Images

And how to fix it

By Madeline Farber
August 2, 2016

As if wading through hundreds of emails at work isn’t enough of a time suck, the stress of checking them after hours could burn you out.

A new study, “Exhausted But Unable to Disconnect,” by Lehigh University’s Liuba Belkin, Virginia Tech’s William Becker, and Colorado State University’s Samantha Conroy, shows it’s no longer the amount of time you spend on work emails that may be lowering your morale, but instead the expectation of answering them when you’re off the clock.

“What we find is that people who feel they have to respond to emails on their off hours become emotionally exhausted, partially because they can’t detach from work,” Conroy, assistant professor of Management at CSU’s College of Business, wrote in the study. “They are not able to separate from work when they go home, which is when they are supposed to be recovering their resources.”

The study, which used data from 297 working adults, is not the first to find that checking after-hours emails impacts workers’ well-being, but instead it investigates a less-explored aspect of the problem: the expectation that employees will respond to work emails during their off hours.

According to the study, this job norm, “creates anticipatory stress” and is harmful “regardless of the time required for email.”

 

The expectation isn’t necessarily conveyed through a formal organizational policy, the researchers found. Instead, it can be a normative standard for behavior in an “organizational culture.” In other words, if a boss regularly emails after hours and expects a fast response, then employees are expected to do the same.

“Thus, if an organization perpetuates the ‘always-on’ culture, it may prevent employees from fully disengaging from work, eventually leading to chronic stress,” Belkin, associate professor of management at Lehigh’s College of Business and Economics, wrote in the study.

The solution? Bosses should tell employees that after-hours emails don’t necessarily require an immediate response. The researchers also suggested that employers should set times when after-hour emailing is acceptable or not, such as no emails during the dinner hour, on weekends, or after 10 p.m.

“Organizations and even individual managers can have some influence on how exhausted their employees are by something as small as communicating the expectations of answering emails and shifting the way after-hours work is handled,” she wrote.

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