A study out of Virginia Tech University confirms something that just about every knowledge worker already knows: Dealing with after-hours emails produces anxiety which is damaging not only to the worker but to their family, too.
One particularly striking finding of this study is that it’s not just the amount of time taken up by reading and answering emails after work that’s stressing out employees (and their partners). In fact, what’s creating more anxiety is just the expectation that an employee will be available for work outside the office.
Take this example: A manager does not expect employees to return her emails during off-hours or while they’re on vacation, but she never explicitly says this. Instead, she assumes they “just know,” and therefore thinks there is no harm in sending messages during these times because she figures they’ll just be waiting for the employee when he returns. But in fact, the employee doesn’t know and logs into his email while he’s out of the office (perhaps because he knows others do it). And when he sees an email from his boss, he interprets this to mean that she expects him to respond. This feeds the expectation to check email while he’s away, and the belief is reinforced by the fact that the manager seems to be working at all hours herself. A lack of intention and differing assumptions cause an unhealthy culture to take root.
This is all consistent with what I see as a speaker and trainer on productivity — it’s bad enough that employees feel tethered to their email during the workday, making it hard to get more important — and more satisfying — work done. When they feel pressure to check even during evenings, weekends and vacations, the quality of their work suffers because they never get a chance to rest and recharge their minds. Without mental recovery time, they become less creative, focused and thoughtful. They feel stressed and out of balance — which all set the stage for burnout.
The problem has three components:
Each of these components feeds the others, creating a cycle that speeds up the pace at the company and contributes to a culture where stress and anxiety thrive. If you’re a manager who’s troubled by this, you can protect your employees and their families from the anxiety caused by the expectation of after-hours availability. The solution must address all three components.
First, you have to clarify your expectations. What managers expect can differ greatly from what employees believe their managers expect, as in the example above.
In the absence of clear expectations, employees will make assumptions about what you expect. You can make your expectations clear — doing everyone a favour — by being explicit. Say something like, “We believe that downtime is important, and we expect you to disconnect from work email on evenings, weekends, and vacations. If something important comes up, we’ll communicate via phone or text.”
What’s important about a statement like that is that it not only clarifies big-picture expectations — about the importance of downtime and disconnecting — it also helps set small-picture expectations about which forms of communication are appropriate in which situations.
I would encourage you to get even more granular: create, clearly communicate, and abide by guidelines for communication even during work hours. Outline which communication channels are appropriate in which situations. For example, if it’s common during the workday for staff to send emails in the case of urgent or time-sensitive issues, then they can never feel comfortable closing their email client in order to get more important work done. They have to keep one eye on their email at all times, which pulls their attention away from other tasks. This constant distraction undermines their focus and prevents them from practising attention management, leading to days that feel busy but are not productive. Email was never intended for synchronous communication, and although we treat it that way, it’s ultimately a terrible idea.
Instead, tell them that in the case of an urgent or time-sensitive situation, you want them to send a text or make a phone call (just as during after-hours), or work it out face-to-face. Make it clear that email should only be for non-time-sensitive communications and routine requests, regardless of the day or time. This prevents the habit of constant distraction during work hours and minimizes the urge to check after-hours. Importantly, you must model this behaviour yourself. If an employee sends you an email containing an urgent request, the only way to drive the message home is if you don’t see it immediately, forcing them to use a more appropriate channel.
Your communication guidelines can go beyond email and the urgent vs. the non-urgent, too — you can set expectations on what meetings are for, how best to use project management tools like Asana, Basecamp, or Trello, and in which situations employees should use company wikis or messaging tools like Slack or Twist. This will help cut down on the number of emails your employees have to respond to.
Clear guidelines will create the space employees need to feel comfortable closing their email client and otherwise controlling their technology so that they can apply the full weight of their concentration to important work, sometimes called “deep work.”
This means leaders need to curb their own late-night email habit and realize the benefits themselves. And no one, not even the boss, should be required to check work while on vacation. If that doesn’t seem possible at your company, you are likely to have bigger problems than losing out on downtime.
As you implement these changes, you should start to see a shift in your workplace culture. Being “always-on” and connected to email 24-7 may feel like you’re being productive, but, as the Virginia Tech research shows, it’s actually increasing employees’ stress and causing conflict within their families, ultimately leading to lower levels of productivity. This is not a sustainable situation for hiring and keeping the best employees, and supporting your organization’s success.
This article was originally written by Maura Thomas, who is an award-winning international speaker and trainer on individual and corporate productivity, attention management, and work-life balance. She is a TEDx Speaker, founder of RegainYourTime, and author of Personal Productivity Secrets and Work Without Walls. She frequently appears in major business outlets and was named one of the Top Leadership Speakers of 2018 in Inc. Magazine.. Full credit goes to HBR, who published this article over a year ago. This article has been reprinted for the purpose of education.