Expectations to answer work emails after hours hurts employees’ health, study finds

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Workers and their spouses can experience increased anxiety due to after-work expectations

It’s not just the action of answering work emails or taking care of work-related demands during off-hours that can be stressful -- the mere expectation of having to do so can harm the health and well-being of a worker, as well as their partner.

In a new study entitled, “Killing me softly: electronic communications monitoring and employee and significant-other well-being,” researchers at Virginia Tech (VT) found that even being expected to check work email during non-work hours caused workers to experience anxiety.

"The competing demands of work and nonwork lives present a dilemma for employees, which triggers feelings of anxiety and endangers work and personal lives,” said study co-author William Becker, a Virginia Tech associate professor of management in the Pamplin College of Business.

The adverse effects of being expected to check work email didn’t only affect the 100 employees involved in the study, their spouses experienced increased anxiety too.

"Some employees admitted to monitoring their work email from every hour to every few minutes, which resulted in higher levels of anxiety and conflict between spouses," said Becker.

“Work without boundaries”

Becker and his colleagues said their new study demonstrates that employees do not need to spend actual time completing work-related tasks during their off-hours to experience harmful effects. Simply knowing that they are considered available to complete work tasks during off-hours can cause feelings of stress and anxiety for employees and their partners.

Workers may be told that there’s a benefit to being able to check work email during non-work hours, such as having greater control over work-life boundaries. But the new study suggests that there are consequences to being “always on.”

"Our research exposes the reality: 'flexible work boundaries' often turn into 'work without boundaries,' compromising an employee's and their family's health and well-being," he said.

Unblurring the lines

To mitigate the negative effects of after-hours expectations, the study authors suggest that employers help employees engage in mindfulness practices to reduce anxiety. Mindfulness may help employees be more present in family interactions, Becker said.

The study team hopes that the study will encourage employers to have clear policies that allow employees to be engaged and present in their personal lives.

"If the nature of a job requires email availability, such expectations should be stated formally as a part of job responsibilities." Being upfront about these expectations may reduce anxiety in employees and increase understanding from their family members, Becker said.

For employees, he hopes the study highlights the importance of refraining from skimming through work emails after hours.

“Quality of relationships matter, as does being mindful and present,” Becker said. “Turn your phone off, put it away and engage in your real life.”

The study will be presented at the Academy of Management annual meeting in Chicago, which is set to take place Aug. 10-14.

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