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After-hours email expectations taking toll on employee health


Responding to work emails after work hours may seem like an increase in productivity, but it turns out, it is negatively impacting employee well-being.

A new study, authored by Liuba Belkin of Lehigh University, William Becker of Virginia Tech and Samantha A. Conroy of Colorado State University, found 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.

“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,” wrote the authors.

Interestingly, they found 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, according to research cited in the article, employees are unable to detach and feel exhausted regardless of the time spent on after-hours emails.

“This suggests that organizational expectations can steal employee resources even when actual time is not required because employees cannot fully separate from work,” stated the authors. 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,” said coauthor Belkin. The study will be presented at the Academy of Management Annual Meeting.

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