Anticipatory stress of after-hours email exhausting employees

It’s become the norm for many U.S. employees to respond to work emails after business hours. While that may seem like an increase in productivity, in reality, it’s having harmful effects on worker well-being.

New study

A new study, “Exhausted But Unable to Disconnect,” authored by Liuba Belkin of Lehigh University, William Becker of Virginia Tech and Samantha A. Conroy of Colorado State University, shows it’s not just the amount of time spent on work emails, but the anticipatory stress and expectation of answering after-hours emails that is draining employees. The study will be presented in August at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management.

Using data collected from 297 working adults, the study looked at the role of organizational expectation regarding “off”-hour emailing and found it negatively impacts employee emotional states, leading to “burnout” and diminished work-family balance, which is essential for individual health and well-being.

Emotionally exhausted

“What we find is that people who feel they have to respond to emails on their off hours become emotionally exhausted, partially because they can’t detach from work,” said Conroy, assistant professor of Management at CSU’s College of Business. “They are not able to separate from work when they go home, which is when they are supposed to be recovering their resources.”

The study is not the first research to find after-hours emails hazardous to workers. It breaks new ground in focusing not primarily on mail volume and the extra time it adds to the workday but on a 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.”

“It’s not only that employees are spending a certain amount of extra time answering emails, but it’s that they feel they have to be ready to respond and they don’t know what the request will be,” said Conroy. “So if they’re having dinner with their family, and hear that ‘ding,’ they feel they have to turn their attention away from their family and answer the email.”

Part of organizational culture

According to the study, the expectation does not have to be explicit or conveyed through a formal organizational policy. It can be set by normative standards for behavior in the organizational culture, which is created through what its leaders and members define as acceptable or unacceptable behavior.

“Thus, if an organization perpetuates the ‘always-on’ culture, it may prevent employees from fully disengaging from work, eventually leading to chronic stress,” says Belkin, associate professor of management at Lehigh’s College of Business and Economics.

What managers can do

The results of the study provide insights into what managers can do to mitigate employee chronic stress and emotional exhaustion caused by organizational expectations related to email.

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.”

Becker, associate professor of Management at the Pamplin College of Business at Virginia Tech, points out that some companies appear to have already figured this out. He credits Boston Consulting Group for guaranteeing one email-free evening a week, and cites Northeast Topping, a small health-care consulting firm in Philadelphia, for prohibiting correspondence after 10 p.m. and on weekends;  Huffington Post has a similar policy.

Conroy reinforces that not only can organizations help improve employee well-being, but individual managers can make a difference too.

“Organizations and even individual managers can have some influence on how exhausted their employees are by something as small as communicating the expectations of answering emails and shifting the way after-hours work is handled,” she said.