Email at home hurts employees, study finds

Simply anticipating after-hours email contributes to a constant state of anxiety that adversely affects workers and results in chronic exhaustion

Email at home hurts employees
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Being always-on, along with pressure to answer email out of work hours, is leading to dangerous levels of emotional exhaustion, a study has found. As a result, employees are experiencing burnout, absenteeism and low job productivity.

The report suggests that managers are kidding themselves when they think workers checking email at home adds to productivity. The folks are, in fact, feeling like they never left the workspace and aren’t able to mentally detach from work, which is something experts say is necessary for family balance and emotional health.

+ Also on Network World: How to avoid becoming overwhelmed with email +

The technology that’s supposedly there to help them is failing them, the Lehigh University in Pennsylvania press release about report says. And “modern workplace technologies may be hurting the very employees those technologies were designed to help.”

The researchers—Liuba Belkin of Lehigh University, William Becker of Virginia Tech and Samantha A. Conroy of Colorado State University—polled 385 participants (with the technology industry making up 11 percent) and found in many cases, just the anticipation of email was enough to cause a “job-stresser.”

The workers didn’t need to do any actual work, even, to suffer. The mere expectation of email that might have to be addressed at home caused the destructive issue. The researchers say it’s serious, and they place it alongside “high workload, interpersonal conflicts, physical environment or time pressure.”

“Previous research has shown that in order to restore resources used during the day at work, employees must be able to detach both mentally and physically from work,” the release explains.

But that’s not happening when employees have to deal with email in the evening and on the weekend. It leads to “chronic stress,” says Belkin, one of the paper’s authors.

Weekend work email illegal in France

And the researchers aren’t the only ones who say so. Weekend work email is now illegal in France for many companies, the New Yorker explained in a May article. The new French “right to disconnect” law is based on worker health.

That “information and communication technologies, if badly managed or regulated, can have an impact on the health of workers” is part of the magazine’s translation of that law there.

People who like “highly segmented” schedules have a worse time of it, the new study says. It refers to those who separate family and work more. Those who weren’t as “rigid” did better.

“The reason is that their personal preferences do not conflict with organizational expectations,” Belkin says.

And it was in the organizational expectations that something peculiar arose. While the state of anxiety studied was caused by perceived or anticipated threats—in other words, not the actual email—just the thought of them, and presumably having to revisit work issues was stress-inducing. Additionally, the expectation from bosses that email needed to be seen to after work didn’t have to be formalized to cause anxiety.

“The expectation does not have to be explicit or conveyed through a formal organizational policy,” the report says. “Standards for behavior in the organization” can be enough.

So, employees didn't have to actually receive email and there didn't have to be a written out-of-hours email acceptance policy to cause worry.

The authors suggest banning email after work, and if that’s not possible, then introduce email-free days or rotate after-hours email schedules.

Another option would be to delete all email that comes in after work hours. Auto maker Daimler famously deletes vacation-received email for staff.

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