Your Work Emails May Be Harming You and Your Loved Ones, Reveals New Study

The research finds that just the mere expectation to respond to post work electronic communications creates anxiety and strife in personal relationships.

Last May, a New York City councilman proposed a bill to ban after-hours work emails similar to regulations introduced in France, Germany, Italy, and the Philippines due to stress-related concerns. Now, a study by Virginia Tech has revealed that just the mere expectation to monitor emails past work hours creates detrimental effects that extend to an employee's loved ones.

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A family affair

The research evaluated the impact that pressure to respond to after-hours electronic communications had on a sample of 142 full-time employees and their significant others. They found the couples experienced anxiety that negatively affected their professional performance, personal health, and family relationships.

“The competing demands of work and nonwork lives present a dilemma for employees which triggers feelings of anxiety and endangers work and personal lives," said in a statement study co-author William Becker, a Virginia Tech associate professor of management in the Pamplin College of Business.

Previous studies have shown a correlation between more job demands and a rise in family strife. These new findings now alarmingly demonstrate that these damaging effects can occur as a result of just the mere expectation of employee availability, even if no increase in workload occurs.

“The insidious impact of ‘always on’ organizational culture is often unaccounted for or disguised as a benefit — increased convenience, for example, or higher autonomy and control over work-life boundaries. Our research exposes the reality: ‘flexible work boundaries’ often turn into ‘work without boundaries,’ compromising an employee’s and their family’s health and well-being," explained Becker.

Policies limiting employee off-hours availability

As such, Becker proposes firms impose policies that introduce strict windows of off-hours employee availability. In addition, organizational expectations that exceed regular hours should be communicated upfront and clearly to promote understanding amongst employees' family members reducing potential conflicts.

Finally, Becker also recommends the age-old practice of mindfulness to help employees mitigate anxiety and improve personal interactions with loved ones. The meditative process has also been found to improve overall mental health and even increase productivity.

“Employees today must navigate more complex boundaries between work and family than ever before. Efforts to manage these expectations are more important than ever, given our findings that employees’ families are also affected by these expectations," warned Becker.

Unable to detach

Becker believes his study is one of the first to illustrate the correlation between email-related expectations and employees' diminished ability to mentally detach from work. “Such expectations — whether real or imagined — cause more problems, including burnout and work-life balance problems, than the actual time it takes to read and respond to after-hours emails," emphasized Becker.

The study advocates that managers have a responsibility to take into consideration these harmful consequences that may worsen over time ultimately interfering with an organization's healthy functioning. Managers need to take measures to protect both their employees and their company.

The study was published in the journal Academy of Management and is set to be presented at the Academy of Management annual meeting in Chicago on August 10-14.