How After-Hours Email Expectations Affect Employee Well-Being

08.01.2016
HR & Safety

A new study, authored by Liuba Belkin of Lehigh University, William Becker of Virginia Tech, and Samantha Conroy of Colorado State University, finds a link between organizational after-hours email expectations and emotional exhaustion, which hinders work-family balance.
The results suggest that modern workplace technologies may be hurting the very employees that those technologies were designed to help.
Using data collected from 365 working adults, Belkin and her colleagues look at the role of organizational expectation regarding off-hour emailing and find it negatively impacts employee emotional states, leading to burnout and diminished work-family balance, which is essential for individual health and well-being.

Detachment Essential

The study is the first to identify email-related expectations as a job stressor along with already established factors such as high workload, interpersonal conflicts, physical environment, or time pressure.

It's not the amount of time spent on work emails but the expectation that drives the sense of exhaustion.

Previous research has shown that in order to restore resources used during the day at work, employees must be able to detach both mentally and physically from work.
"Email is notoriously known to be the impediment of the recovery process,” write the study’s authors.
“Its accessibility contributes to experience of work overload since it allows employees to engage in work as if they never left the workspace, and at the same time, inhibits their ability to psychologically detach from work-related issues via continuous connectivity."

Anticipatory Stress

Interestingly, they found that it is not the amount of time spent on work emails but the expectation that drives the resulting sense of exhaustion.
Due to anticipatory stress—defined as a constant state of anxiety and uncertainty as a result of perceived or anticipated threats, according to research cited in the article—employees are unable to detach and feel exhausted regardless of the time spent on after-hours emails.

Organizational expectations can steal employee resources even when actual time is not required.

"This suggests that organizational expectations can steal employee resources even when actual time is not required because employees cannot fully separate from work," write the authors.

‘Always on’ Culture

According to the study, the expectation does not have to be explicit or conveyed through a formal organizational policy. It can be set by normative standards for behavior in the organization.
The organizational culture is created through what its leaders and members define as acceptable or unacceptable behavior.
"Thus, if an organization perpetuates the 'always on' culture it may prevent employees from fully disengaging from work eventually leading to chronic stress," says Belkin.

High vs. Low ‘Segmenters’

The authors looked at data collected from surveys of 385 participants from a wide variety of industries and organizations.
The surveys were designed to measure organizational expectations, time spent on email outside of work, psychological detachment from work during off-work hours, level of emotional exhaustion, and perceptions of work-family balance, among other factors.
The largest industry groups represented were finance & banking (15%), technology (11%), and healthcare (8%).

The anticipatory stress caused by organizational email-related norms is more dangerous for people who prefer highly segmented schedules.

In addition to the correlation between organizational expectations to monitor work email after-hours and emotional exhaustion as a result of the inability to "turn off," the researchers also found that people who prefer a strict separation of their work and family time have an even more difficult time detaching from work than those who are OK with blending work and home time.
"The anticipatory stress caused by organizational email-related norms is more dangerous for people who prefer highly segmented schedules," says Belkin.
The authors believe that this may be because people with less rigid separation between work and family time have "...an easier time disconnecting since their personal preferences do not conflict with organizational expectations."
Belkin and her coauthors believe that a high-pressure environment may eventually lead to emotional exhaustion for "low segmenters" as well.

Undesirable Outcomes

The authors cite previous research correlating the absence of work-family balance to a number of detrimental outcomes—for both the individual and his or her employer:

If people cannot disconnect from work, it leads to burnout, higher turnover, more deviant behavior, and lower productivity.

"Satisfaction with the balance between work and family domains is important for individual health and well-being, while individual inability to successfully balance roles in those domains can lead to anxiety and depression, lowered satisfaction with both work and family roles, absenteeism, decreased job productivity and organizational commitment, and greater turnover."
"As prior research has shown, if people cannot disconnect from work and recuperate, it leads to burnout, higher turnover, more deviant behavior, lower productivity, and other undesirable outcomes," said Belkin.

What Employers Can Do

The results of the study provide insights into what employers can do to mitigate employee chronic stress and emotional exhaustion caused by organizational expectations related to email.

Being 'always on' may seem like a good idea because it increases productivity, but it can be dangerous in the long-run.

"We believe our findings have implications for organizations, as even though in the short run being 'always on' may seem like a good idea because it increases productivity, it can be dangerous in the long-run," said Belkin.
The authors suggest that if completely banning email after work is not an option, managers could implement weekly "email free days."
Another idea is to offer rotating after-hours email schedules to help employees manage their work and family time more efficiently.
The authors write: "By making descriptive and injunctive norms that emphasize balance between work and nonwork domains salient, organizations should potentially decrease the email-related stress."
The benefits may go beyond employee well-being.
"Such policies may not only reduce employee pressure to reply to emails after-hours and relieve the exhaustion from stress, but will also serve as a signal of organizational caring and support, potentially increasing trust in management, work identification, job commitment, and extra-role behaviors."

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