Will you spend your summer vacation checking your work e-mail?
It’s ruining your brain.
In France, it’s now illegal to send work e-mails to employees after 10 p.m. In Germany, the government has been tossing around the idea for a similar law, making it a crime for employers to contact workers via e-mail outside of regular work hours. (Some German companies, like Volkswagen, have instituted their own rules to protect against after-hours e-mails.)
The effects of being on-call 24/7 have been studied ever since…well, ever since being on-call 24/7 became a thing. That’s how we know that e-mail checking is a double-edged sword. Many employees consider e-mail access outside the office a “positive development,” saying that they often check their work e-mails whenever, wherever—and these employees also report “better overall lives.” (This also highlights the disconnect between what we think is good and what we really experience.)
But being accessible also makes us more stressed and intrudes into personal time (obvs).
And one edge of that sword just got a little sharper. New research from a trio of academics outlined in a paper called Exhausted But Unable to Disconnect reports that the damage comes not from actually reading and responding to work e-mails, but from the expectation of availability. They call it “anticipatory stress.” And that’s what’s burning us out, according to the researchers: “An ‘always-on’ culture with high expectations to monitor and respond to e-mails during non-work time may prevent employees from ever fully disengaging from work, leading to chronic stress and emotional exhaustion.”
For this research, 600 respondents took two surveys, one week apart, which were designed to judge how much after-work e-mail they were doing, their emotional exhaustion levels, and their thoughts on work-life balance. The survey also tracked respondents’ employer’s e-mail policy.
The more after-work e-mail the study participants performed (an average of 8 hours per week), the less they were able to turn off work. They also reported being more stressed and were not happy with their work-life balance.
One way to deal with this is to not care so much. Those surveyed who were indifferent about shutting off work reportedly feel less stressed about those 9 p.m. messages: “[E]mployees that require less segmentation…do not find periodic interruptions of non-work time particularly onerous.”
Here’s an idea suggested by the study’s authors: Institute a company policy about off-hours e-mail. This might include work e-mail-free evenings or days (these used to be called “weekends”), or rules about responding—for example, you can send e-mails, but the recipient isn’t required to respond until the next business day. Of course, that puts the onus on the recipient, who might get stressed simply seeing work pile up.
And that stress is the reason companies need to think about how they’re handling e-mail. It can lead to bad employee performance, depression, and a sense of incompetence. What’s the point of being available 24/7 if the results are substandard?
Now put on some sunscreen and get back to your beach read.
For more strategies to maintain a healthy workplace, see Is Your Wellness Program Actually Stressful? How To Make It Better.