How work emails are harming employees

by L&D01 Aug 2016
Are you one to sit back on the couch after work and check emails?

If so, you might want to reconsider how you spend your downtime.

It might seem like a good idea at the time, but it could be dangerous in the long-run.

That’s because there is a link between after-hours email expectations and emotional exhaustion, according to a new study by Liuba Belkin of Lehigh University, William Becker of Virginia Tech and Samantha A. Conroy of Colorado State University.

In fact, the results suggest that modern workplace technologies may be hurting the very workers that they are designed to help.

By studying data collected from 297 working adults, Belkin and her colleagues found off-hour emailing negatively impacts employee emotional states, leading to burnout and reduced work-life balance (something essential for health and well-being).

The study 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.

Moreover, 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 exhaustion.

Due to anticipatory stress (defined as a constant state of anxiety and uncertainty as a result of perceived or anticipated threats) employees are unable to detach and feel exhausted regardless of the time spent on after-hours emails.

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

Belkin added that if an organisation encourages the 'always on' culture it may prevent employees from fully disengaging from work, eventually leading to chronic stress.

"As prior research has shown, if people cannot disconnect from work and recuperate, it leads to burnout, higher turnover, more deviant behavior, lower productivity, and other undesirable outcomes," said Belkin.

"We believe our findings have implications for organisations, 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.”

The authors also suggest that if completely banning email after work is not appropriate, managers could implement weekly "email free days".

They added: "By making descriptive and injunctive norms that emphasise balance between work and non-work domains salient, organisations should potentially decrease the email-related stress."
"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 organisational caring and support, potentially increasing trust in management, work identification, job commitment and extra-role behaviours."