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Pressing employees to respond to emails after hours is a recipe for trouble, study finds

July 12, 2016

For more information, contact: Ben Haimowitz, (718) 398- 7642), press@aom.org

Despite gains that companies may realize from employees' attending to emails after hours, expecting them to do so invites trouble, new research suggests.

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 exhaustion."

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");

•  Work/home 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 home life)."

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 organizational expectations."

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 functioning."

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. 

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