Exhausted? After-Hours Emails May Be to Blame

A new study co-authored by Liuba Belkin, associate professor of management at Lehigh, suggests that companies should refrain from sending emails to their employees after hours—for the sake of their employees' health and productivity.

The study—also authored by William Becker of Virginia Tech and Samantha A. Conroy of Colorado State University—finds a link between organizational after-hours email expectations and employees' emotional exhaustion. The results suggest that modern workplace technologies may be hurting the very employees those technologies were designed to help.

Using data collected from 297 working adults, Belkin and her colleagues looked at the role of organizational expectation regarding off-hour emailing and found it hurts employee emotional states, leading to "burnout" and diminished work-family balance.

The study—described in the article Exhausted, but Unable to Disconnect: The Impact of Email-related Organizational Expectations on Work-Family Balance—is the first to identify email-related expectations as a job stressor along with already established factors such as 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.

"Email is notoriously known to be the impediment of the recovery process. Its accessibility contributes to experience of work overload since it allows employees to engage in work as if they never left the workspace, and at the same time, inhibits their ability to psychologically detach from work-related issues via continuous connectivity," write the authors.

They found that it is not the amount of time spent on work emails, but the expectation which drives the resulting sense of exhaustion. Due to anticipatory stress—a constant state of anxiety and uncertainty as a result of perceived or anticipated threats, according to research cited in the article—employees are unable to detach and feel exhausted regardless of how much time they spend on the after-hours emails.

"This suggests that organizational expectations can steal employee resources even when actual time is not required because employees cannot fully separate from work," state the authors.

The researchers also found that people who prefer a strict separation of work and family time have an even more difficult time detaching from work than those who are OK with blending work and home time.

"The anticipatory stress caused by organizational email-related norms is more dangerous for people who prefer highly segmented schedules," says Belkin.

The study gives insight into what managers can do to mitigate the stress and emotional exhaustion employees may feel over expectations related to email.

"We believe our findings have implications for organizations, as even though in the short run being ‘always on' may seem like a good idea because it increases productivity, it can be dangerous in the long-run," said Belkin.

The authors suggest that if completely banning email after work is not an option, managers could implement weekly "email free days." Another idea is to offer rotating after-hours email schedules to help employees manage their work and family time more efficiently.

The benefits may go beyond employee well-being. The study says, "Such policies may not only reduce employee pressure to reply to emails after-hours and relieve the exhaustion from stress, but will also serve as a signal of organizational caring and support, potentially increasing trust in management, work identification, job commitment and extra-role behaviors."