Man on phone in middle of night

24/7 work emails impact health and relationships, study finds

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The first study into the relationship between expectations to engage with work-related communications outside working hours, and the health and relationships of employees, has found that the culture of round-the-clock work email comes at great personal expense.

People frustrated by their partners checking work emails, texts and Slack messages during evening dates and family time may feel validated by the study, which has found that the worst impact of ever-looming work expectations is the strain that they put on personal relationships.

A 2016 study by the same team of researchers, based at Lehigh University, Pennsylvania, was the first to explore the personal impact of 24/7 emails on work-life balance, finding that checking work emails during non-work hours led to emotional exhaustion and poor work-life balance.

Now, the same team has reported that the expectation to respond to work emails outside work hours are a serious source of anxiety and a strain on personal relationships. Their study was based on responses from 142 pairs of full-time employees and their partners.

According to the researchers, regardless of how much time employees actually spent checking and responding to work emails, the expectation to monitor their work emails around the clock has a negative effect on wellbeing. This puts strain on personal relationships, affecting the employees’ relationships with their partners and families.

This “spillover effect” was judged by the researchers to be the strongest negative impact of these work expectations.

“[Work emails are] insidious stressors that not only increases employee anxiety, decreases their relationship satisfaction and has detrimental effects on employee health, but also that it negative affects partner (significant other) health and marital satisfaction perceptions,” said Professor Liuba Belkin, associate professor of management at Lehigh.

“We demonstrated that these normative expectations for work email monitoring during non-work hours is a significant stressor above and beyond actual workload and time spent on handling it during non-work hours,” she added.

Belkin and her colleagues suggest that employers should reduce expectations to monitor communication outside working hours as much as is possible, with a focus on defining boundaries between work and leisure time, as well as clearly communicating when employees are expected to be contactable. This would make it easier for employees to switch fully between their professional and personal/family identities.

“This may not always be an option due to various industry/job demands,” she said. “Nevertheless, organisations could set off-hour email windows and limit use of electronic communications outside of those windows or set up email schedules when various employees are available to respond.”

Concern about the excessive amount of time many people spend on their devices has led to the establishment of ‘Scroll-Free September’; a Royal Society for Public Health campaign to encourage social media users to cut down on - or abstain entirely from - social media during the month of September.

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