When that work phone pings, it’s highly likely that your employees reflexively open up that email and see if it’s something that they can address right here, right now. But could this “available at all hours” attitude be causing your employees harm?
In one study published in 2018, researchers found that answering emails round-the-clock led to increased levels of anxiety for workers, which in turn leads to increased stress at home and definitely skews the elusive work-life balance. Further, this same study suggests that even if workers don’t actually answer emails while at home, if there is an expectation that employees should be available to do so, that can also prove detrimental. Lead researcher William Becker notes “the insidious impact of ‘always on’ organizational culture is often unaccounted for or disguised as a benefit – Increased convenience, for example, or higher autonomy and control over work-life boundaries.” Further, the researchers note that “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.”
To counter this “always on” culture, several businesses and even an entire country, have placed limits on after-hours work email. In 2012, Volkswagen hit the news when it altered its servers so that emails could only be routed to their recipients during “normal” working hours and were completely restricted on weekends and when an employee was on vacation. Meanwhile, in 2017, France passed legislation which gave employees at companies with more than 50 workers the “right to disconnect” and essentially negotiate the times at which they would be available to receive and respond to after-hours communications and Germany has also ushered in similar regulations. Meanwhile, New York City in 2019 considered legislation that would also allow employees to disconnect, but went much more stringent and sought to make it illegal for companies to require employees be available outside of normal business hours. It met with some opposition and appears to be mostly dead in the water now, but evidently companies and lawmakers are taking note of the potential ill effects associated with always being available.
However, it should be noted that a second study published in the journal, Computers in Human Behavior found that some employees may find it more distressing to not be able to receive emails after hours. In the study, researchers looked at how personality type influenced perceptions about receiving email and found that those that are targeted and goal oriented may feel that blocking these all-hours emails actually detrimental to their ability to achieve their goals. “Despite the best intentions of a solution designed to optimize well-being such as instructing all employees to switch off their emails outside of work hours to avoid being stressed, this policy would be unlikely to be welcomed by employees who prioritize work performance goals and who would prefer to attend to work outside of hours if it helps them get their tasks completed,” lead researcher Emma Russell said.
In terms of managing after hour emails, Becker, the researcher from the 2018 study, proposes that companies establish policies that prohibit the use of electronic communication outside of working hours. Where this isn’t feasible, to manage expectations, he suggests creating designated hours when workers are available to respond to requests or communications that come in during non-work hours. In addition, he recommends that if you require workers to be available after hours you communicate these expectations clearly as part of the responsibilities of the job, meaning that they are explained during recruiting and hiring efforts, so that potential employees can determine if this is something they are willing to take on. However, Russell, from the second study, noted that “people need to deal with email in the way that suits their personality and their goal priorities in order to feel like they are adequately managing their workload,” and thus suggested that companies stop trying to find a “one size fits all” or even “one size fits most” solution and instead ask employees what their preference was and tailor their policies (and expectations) accordingly.