We’ve all been there. It’s 10 o’clock at night, you’re mid-Netflix and chill and just happen to glance at your phone to see a new email from your boss. You fire off a response and then maybe fire off a few more while you’re at it. It just takes a moment or two and makes it feel your boss knows you're committed to your job.
While some of us may want to stop working at 6PM, it’s hard to ignore an email from your boss. In this smartphone-enabled and “always on” working world there’s a lot of pressure to stay in touch way past 9 to 5. A large body of work shows that this can have seriously deleterious effects on anxiety levels, but a new study that shows that not only is constantly checking your work email bad for your mental health, but it’s also bad for your relationships.
“If you never leave that work mentality behind that can cause a lot of problems,” said William Becker, a Virginia Tech associate professor of management in the Pamplin College of Business, who co-authored the study, which is being presented at the Academy of Management annual meeting this weekend and is currently in the process of peer review.
To make matters worse, it doesn’t even matter if you actually check your email after hours. What matters is that you feel obligated to do so. “The mere expectation of constant availability means that one’s cognitive resources are always in the “on” mode during non-work hours,” the study found. “In reality “flexible work boundaries” often turn into “work without boundaries”, compromising an employee’s and their family’s health and well-being.”
The "always on" mentality is particularly insidious because employers mistakenly assume it’s a plus. “On its face companies probably think it’s a good thing, because they are getting more responsiveness, getting more work out of their employees, and downplay the drawbacks,” said Becker. But that can lead to “absenteeism, burnout, and turnover,” as well as an array of stress-linked disorders such as heart disease, weight gain, memory impairment, digestive problems, and depression.
Anxiety is contagious
The anxiety isn’t limited to the person responding to their boss’s 11PM high priority-flagged email. It also adversely affects the health of partners and spouses, too. “What we found in this study is that organizational expectation caused anxiety in the employee, but that anxiety also carried over to their significant other who also felt increased anxiety about the employees use of email,” said Becker.
Yep, turns out that watching your boyfriend or wife tapping at their phone at the dinner table can cause measurable levels of stress resulting in increased anxiety for both parties.
Interestingly, the study also found that while the person responding to emails on their couch at 10PM on a Tuesday was anxious and stressed, they didn’t tend to realize their work situation was causing a problem in their relationship—which is a problem. “It can cause bigger problems if one person doesn’t see it as a problem, when it really is one,” explained Becker. That disconnect between partners can cause more tension. “There’s a feedback loop. The relationship stress causes more anxiety,” Becker said.
Being "always on" actually makes you less productive too
This isn’t the first study to show that constantly checking your work email is bad for your mental health. A 2016 study by the Future Work Centre in the UK surveyed close to 2,000 people across various industries about how they managed their email and how much associated stress they felt as a result. Turns out that while being organized and quickly handling every message that comes into your inbox results in heightened anxiety and greater pressure.
In fact, there’s a seemingly ever-growing body of research that indicates that being “always-on” and constantly connected to work is making people less healthy and even less productive. A 70-hour work week doesn't necessarily result in more getting done than a 55-hour work week, according to a 2014 study in the Economic Journal by Stanford University labor economist John Pencavel.
Basically, there’s no point in constantly being connected, and good bosses should realize that. “Leaders would be well-advised to be very clear about if they want their employees to at least take some time each day to disconnect and reconnect with their real lives,” said Becker. “People need support from their leaders to show that it’s okay to do that.”
In other words, turning off your work email when you get home is good for everyone.
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