Do You Check Your Email After Work Hours? New Study Says Simply Thinking About It Could Be Harmful

Checking Email

Most everyone knows that obsessively checking work emails and staying “connected” even in your off hours can have negative effects on one’s personal life. But new research suggests that even thinking about or anticipating workplace communication can be harmful to your health, relationships, and overall well-being.

According to a new article in Academy of Management titled “Killing Me Softly: Electronic Communications Monitoring and Employee and Spouse Well-Being,” the mere “expectation of availability” during non-working hours can cause anxiety and stress, which negatively affect one’s home life and can even put a strain on personal relationships.

So employees don’t have to actually engage in any actual work outside of their normal working hours in order to experience the negative effects of over-working (like poor interactions with loved ones, higher stress levels, distractedness, or unhealthy habits) -- simply thinking about the need to stay connected at work can be stressful enough in and of itself.

In particular, the study found that the stress caused by merely anticipating email monitoring during off hours also raises the stress levels of your partner or significant other, so there is a ripple effect that has significant consequences to one’s personal life and relationships.  

The researchers suggested that the growing popularity of “flexible” work hours and non-traditional office environments may contribute to some of this anxiety around always thinking that you need to stay “connected” to your colleagues or work. As co-author William Becker said, “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.”

This is, he describes, one of the more serious disadvantages of being a part of an “always-on” company culture where constant connectivity is expected, rewarded, and widely practiced throughout the organization.

So what can you do to eliminate the stress and pressure of feeling that you should always be connected, even in your off hours?

1. Set clear expectations with your employer and colleagues

Even before you start a job, you should make sure that you understand exactly what is expected of you during on and off hours. Are there a few days out of the week or month where you’ll be expected to be responsive during the evenings or weekends? Or a few times a year during a big event or particularly busy time? What level of communication and connectivity does your employer require and expect on a daily basis in your non-working hours? If they don’t bring this up during the interview or on-boarding phase, then you should ask. If your current employer has never made any of these things clear, be sure to bring it up in your next 1:1.

2. Learn to be present

Learning a few basic techniques in mindfulness can go a long way in helping you to stay present in the moment and to be less distracted by thoughts of work when you’re spending time with friends or family outside of working hours. According to mindfulness expert Andy Puddicombe, even setting aside as little as 10 minutes a day for mindfulness exercises can help you to be calmer, happier, and more present in your personal and professional life.

3. Communicate with your loved ones

If you’re not sure whether your work-related stress over needing to stay “on” all the time is affecting your personal relationships as the study suggests, simply ask those around you. Find out if the people closest to you are feeling the residual effects of your stress during non-working hours, and learn how this, in turn, affects their own anxiety levels. If they admit to feeling the strain over your inability to stop thinking about work or the need to answer emails and be on call 24/7, then it’s likely time to re-evaluate your approach to work/life balance.

4. Adjust your email and messaging settings

If you have trouble self-regulating and can’t control the temptation to check your email during non-working hours, use technology to help set the limits and boundaries you need to stay happy, healthy, sane, and present in your personal life when you’re not working. Snoozing or silencing all of your work-related messaging alerts during your personal time will make it much easier to disconnect and avoid sneaking the odd message here or there.

If you’re concerned about missing an urgent matter during off-hours, set automatic replies, for example, that sends only on the nights and weekends that give an alternative email or number for urgent matters only.

5. Consider finding a new job

If your company culture breeds an unhealthy expectation for connectivity (even with non-urgent issues), then you may consider looking for a new organization with a better approach to work/life balance. The best employers want their teams to have rich, healthy personal lives so that they can be in the best state-of-mind when they come to work each day. If your employer refuses to implement best practices around creating a healthy separation between work and life, it’s time to find one who does.

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