Email use during personal time creates anxieties, opportunities
It’s around 8 p.m. on a Wednesday evening, and computer information systems assistant professor Adela Chen has carved a few minutes from her personal time to exchange emails about her research – which, coincidentally, is about the implications of after-hours work communications on work-life balance.
Off-the-clock professional communications such as Chen’s are familiar to many information workers. With the coronavirus pandemic shifting huge segments of the workforce into full-time, work-from-home positions, work-life balance has been upended and lines between personal and work life became fuzzier than ever before. Chen and assistant professor of management Samantha Conroy have independently studied the impacts of work-related communications bleeding into personal time. Neither is surprised by reports of exhaustion that comes from trying to keep up as emails and Slack or Teams messages stack up after quitting time.
“I think the lines are probably more blurred than they’ve ever been,” Conroy explained. “When is the end of the day at work when your work is your home? You didn’t choose to have your work life and your personal life so integrated. It may be hard to create these lines like, ‘This is the end of the day and I’m done with work.’”
For many, the Great Quarantine of 2020 has intensified feelings that they’re expected to stay on top of workplace communications after hours. That pressure exists regardless of the amount of personal time devoted to answering work emails – the mere expectation hangs like a cloud over employees’ personal time. Conroy’s research, originally published in the Journal of Management and Group & Organization Management, suggest the problems are more than a just drag on morale. Expectations are associated with health measures that have been tied to hospitalization, chronic disease and mortality as well as reduced happiness of employees and their significant others, as well as increased rates of employee turnover.
In addition to the immediate hiring costs and productivity disruptions implicit with employee turnover, organizations also face a less tangible consequence from employee burnout. Chen’s research, originally published in MIS Quarterly, indicates that employees who shift time away from personal needs to attend to after-hours communications are likely to feel mentally drained when they frequently switch in and out of “work mode” during personal time.
“You’re really tired because it’s really hard to disconnect,” Chen said. “This feeling will jeopardize the gains that you could have from spending more time on work tasks.”
Preferences, not expectations
Both Chen and Conroy caution that spending time on work communications during personal time isn’t inherently problematic, and can provide benefits when managed properly.
“The conclusion people always seem to jump to with this research is that email is bad,” Conroy explains. “Email is not bad. Being available off hours is not inherently bad. It’s about how you perceive it, whether you feel you have a choice in the matter or not.”
When employees feel as if they can exercise that choice to engage in email or focus on personal matters, the negative impacts of after-hours email aren’t noticed. Some employees will prefer to segment their work and personal lives as much as possible and disengage with workplace communications in personal time altogether. Others prefer to intermingle work and personal life to a greater degree and see off-hours email use as an opportunity to manage their lives better.
Pulling out your phone to check your work email in the evening isn’t necessarily a sign you’re turning into a workaholic, either. For some employees, unresolved workplace issues can cast a shadow over free time. The ability to set aside household responsibilities for a moment to wrap up loose ends in email can help employees enjoy their personal time better – just so long as it’s their choice.
“Sometimes what happens at work does linger in our personal space,” Chen said, “if you are waiting for a big announcement or if you’re waiting to bring closure to big work tasks. Personally, I think it’s a great feeling if I can bring closure to a task. After that I can just move on and enjoy my non-work activities better.”
Whether they’re retreating into a dedicated home office or encamped on a makeshift workspace on the dining room table, the surge of work-from-home employees in quarantine have an unprecedented amount of juggling between professional and personal lives. Job responsibilities, family commitments, home-schooling demands and childcare needs, among other issues are suddenly in conflict with a cleanly segmented workday. After-hours work offers the opportunity to redefine the nine-to-five to suit personal demand.
“I feel to some extent that work-life balance is hugely disrupted because you have to interweave them in a way you probably never expected before,” Chen said. “Having the flexibility to move work to personal space, to deal with personal commitments during so-called work time can be valuable.”
Dictates of an unspoken culture
The freedom rather than the expectation to engage in workplace communications is a predictor of positive impacts of after-hours email, so employers can develop approaches to give employees the leeway to leverage technology as they need. The day-to-day interactions that define an organization’s culture have the most immediate impact on how employees feel about after-hours communications.
It’s easy for leadership to fall into practices that unintentionally establish norms about blending work and private time. Employees who work in organizations where late-night Slacks and after-dinner emails are commonplace is likely to feel pressured to match the practice. The magnitude of that pressure increases when coworkers in position of authority heavily engage in nonworkplace communications.
“If my boss is always sending after-work emails, that person has a lot more power than me,” Conroy said. “I may think, ‘I need to respond to this person because I want this person to think I’m a hard worker.’ They’re creating that by sending you that. They’re creating a norm that sending emails, responding to emails is important without it being said.
“It’s going to be particularly bad in organizations where there’s norms that suggest that you should be responding and if you don’t respond, there are rewards that you’re not going to get because you’re not responding to email.”
Supervisors who want to cultivate a culture where employees don’t feel as if they’re expected to stay in contact after work hours on email and messaging platforms can start by expressing ground rules about after-hours communications. Many of the norms will vary by organizational culture and each position’s responsibilities, but if responding to emails after hours is not expected, clearly establishing those norms can ease anxieties around monitoring communications channels on personal time.
Reserve telephone calls for critical, emergency level communications with employees after hours, and allow them the discretion to check email as they see fit, Conroy says. Chen cautions employers that using technology that allows employees to respond at their own pace, such as email, is less disruptive than platforms that require both parties to be active participants, such as telephone calls, video chats and text and instant messaging. In addition to limiting the frequency of required after-hours communications, making them as nonintrusive as possible will help ease the burden of staying in contact outside of regular work hours.
“If you check your email at night because you want to do it, because you enjoy checking into work, it’s not a problem,” Conroy said. “It’s more if you feel compelled to because it’s expected of you.”