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In the News: Can answering work emails late at night lower productivity?

In this economy, it’s easy for workers to associate being accessible all the time to being productive, but the results of two studies published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processing suggest that using a smartphone to answer work emails after 9pm 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 again late in the afternoon over the course of 10 days. For the second study, the same researchers 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 (such as a tablet or traditional personal computer), could be linked to disrupted sleep and disengagement from work the next day.

What’s more interesting than the actual results is the “why” aspect of the whole situation. The researchers hypothesized the following:

Ego Depletion:
The idea behind this one is that we only have so much attention we’re capable of giving and need alone-time to recharge. Therefore, working through this so-called recharging time results in less focus at other times. Further, the researchers note that ego depletion – which is very much tied to self-control – has been linked to breakdowns in the regulation of deviant and unethical behaviors.

Sleep disruption:
The researchers also hypothesized that smartphones are specifically designed to disrupt sleep because when they buzz or even light up with a new message or alert, they defer our dreams and REM cycles. They also note that lack of sleep also contributes to lower glucose levels and metabolic rates in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, an area linked to self-control.

In the first study, however, researchers did detect a silver lining of sorts: 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. For some employees, this may mean being able to work from home some days or being able to take a generous paid maternity or paternity leave without worrying about losing their job. If none of these options are feasible, the researchers note that “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.”

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