When word spread about France passing a law that banned checking emails after work and on weekends, it got a lot of traction because it fit into stereotypes in the English-speaking media of France as being “work averse.” The truth was much less inflammatory, and less entertaining.
Now it turns out that the email-shy (wherever they may live) could have the healthful last laugh after all. New research scheduled to be presented at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management in Anaheim this month suggests that reading, writing and wrangling work email during off-hours may be hurting us more than it is helping our careers.
The study details the 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.
“Email is notoriously known to be the impediment of the recovery process. 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,” write the authors, Liuba Belkin of Lehigh University, William Becker of Virginia Tech and Samantha A. Conroy of Colorado State University.
The researchers used data collected from 297 working adults. The data indicates that it is not the amount of time spent on work emails, but the expectation which 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 – employees are unable to detach and feel exhausted regardless of the time spent on after-hours emails.
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.” The authors believe that a high-pressure environment may eventually lead to emotional exhaustion for “low segmenters” as well.
The authors suggest that future research on the impact of communication media on employee behavior and well-being include how organizational expectations may be contributing to the outcomes.