Pressing employees to respond to emails after hours is a recipe for trouble, study finds
July 12, 2016
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Despite gains that companies may realize from employees' attending
to emails after hours, expecting them to do so invites trouble, new research
A paper entitled "Exhausted But Unable to Disconnect,"
to be presented at the forthcoming annual meeting of the Academy of Management(Anaheim, Aug. 5-9), finds such expectations play havoc with employees’
well-being and work-family balance, and suggests they
weaken job performance as well.
In the words of the study, by Liuba Y. Belkin of Lehigh
University, William Becker of Virginia Tech, and Samantha A. Conroy of Colorado
State University, "an 'always on' culture with high expectations to
monitor and respond to emails during non-work time may prevent employees from
ever fully disengaging from work, leading to chronic stress and emotional
While by no means the first research to find emails hazardous to
workers, the study breaks new ground in focusing not primarily on mail volume
and the extra time it adds to workdays (the principal object of previous
research) but on a heretofore little-explored aspect of the problem – the mere expectation that
workers will respond to email in their off-hours.
Such a job norm, the professors write, "creates anticipatory
stress" and "influences employee's ability to detach from work
regardless of the time required for email."
Indeed, "organizational expectations are the main culprit of
individual inability to disconnect,” they continue. “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."
The authors call on managers "to enforce organizational
practices that will help to mitigate these negative effects and protect their
employees in the long run. For instance, if completely banning email
after-hours is not an option...they may want to establish formal policies and
rules on availability for after work hours, such as weekly 'email-free days' or
specific rotating schedules that will allow employees to manage their work and
family time more efficiently...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."
Prof. Becker comments that some companies appear to have already
figured this out. He credits Boston Consulting Group for pioneering in
guaranteeing one email-free evening a week, and cites Northeast Topping, a
small healthcare consulting firm in Philadelphia for prohibiting correspondence
after 10 p.m. and on weekends and Huffington Post for a similar policy.
"European firms have been ahead of those in the U.S. in this
regard," the professor adds, "but there's still a long way to go on
both sides of the Atlantic. Perhaps by revealing the damage these expectations
can cause, our research will improve matters, as this is a problem that should
be relatively amenable to solution."
The study's findings emerge from an analysis of survey responses
via email of working adults whom the authors recruited from a business school
alumni association and LinkedIn interest groups and who had jobs in a wide
variety of industries and organizations. Some 600 responded to an initial
survey, of whom about half answered a second survey a week later. The first
survey asked how many hours a week participants devoted to after-hours email
and solicited responses on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly
agree) to statements about the following:
• Their employers'
general policy on work-home separation ("My workplace lets people forget
about work when they're home") and, more specifically, whether "it is
expected that people will read and act on email outside of working hours";
• Participants' general
level of psychological detachment from work (for example, "Away from work
I forget about work");
• General level of
emotional exhaustion (for example, "I feel emotionally drained from my work"
or "I feel like I'm at the end of my rope");
segmentation preference (for example, "I don't like to have to think about
work while I'm at home" or "I don't like work issues creeping into my
The second survey, a week later, probed subjects' work-family
balance through responses (again, on a scale of 1/strongly disagree to
5/strongly agree) to such statements as "I am satisfied with the balance I
have achieved between my work life and my non-work life" or "I experience
a high level of balance between my work and non-work."
Participants indicated that they spent an average of about eight
hours a week doing company-related emails after hours, with greater amounts
associated with less ability to detach from work. But the effect of
expectations in hampering detachment was much greater, leading the
authors to observe that "diminished work detachment due to email-related
overload is not necessarily caused by the time spent on handling the work
email, but instead is strongly tied to anticipatory stress caused by
This lowered ability to disconnect translates into poorer
work-family balance, the study finds. Further,
it begets emotional exhaustion, which, earlier research has shown, negatively
affects job performance.
Expectation impedes detachment most, the professors found, when
individuals have strong segmentation preference – that is, strongly wish to
keep work and family separate. Although such people are generally more likely
to detach from work than those with low preference, insistence on after-hours
email availability evidently upsets their ability to do so. The authors surmise
that employees who don’t care greatly about segmentation "may actually
have easier time disconnecting since their personal preferences do not conflict
with organizational expectations." This would be consistent, they add,
with earlier findings "that employees that require less segmentation...do
not find periodic interruptions of non-work time particularly onerous."
In conclusion, the authors reiterate that "even though
high-pressure environments with strong salient norms may appear beneficial for
organizations in the short-run...such environments appear to be a double-edged
sword. Managers need to be cognizant of the consistent negative impact on
individual perceptions and well-being that may prove to be especially onerous over
time not only to individuals but also ultimately to organizational
The paper, entitled “Exhausted But Unable to
Disconnect: The Impact of Email-Related Organizational Expectations on
Work-Family Balance," will be among the thousands of research reports
presented at the 2,100 sessions of the Academy of Management annual
meeting, in Anaheim, California, from August 5th through 9th. Founded in
1936, the Academy of Management is the largest organization in the world
devoted to management research and teaching. It has more than 20,000 members in
125 countries. This year's annual meeting will draw some 11,000 scholars
and practitioners for sessions on a host of subjects relating to business
strategy, organizational behavior, corporate governance, careers, human
resources, technology development, and other management-related topics.