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Late-hour work e-mailing sends unsettling message

Elizabeth Cohen sent and replied to work e-mails after 9 p.m. at her home in Arlington.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Elizabeth Cohen sent and replied to work e-mails after 9 p.m. at her home in Arlington.

Many nights, the e-mails from his boss arrived between 2:30 and 4:30 a.m. — “no-man’s land,” in Michael Bodnar’s words.

“I wouldn’t know if he was starting his work day wicked early, or if he hadn’t gone to sleep yet — or if he never slept,” said Bodnar, a data center manager from Ashland.

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“He used it to strategic advantage,” said Bodnar, who has moved on from the vampire boss but remains agitated at the memory. “He would draw you into something in the middle of the night. He’d plant a seed of doubt.”

Even as some American firms boast about policies that encourage workers to unplug — allowing unlimited vacation time, for example, or discouraging after-hours e-mails — many workers like Bodnar say they are afraid to go offline. The employee who sleeps through a 3 a.m. e-mail risks losing out on business.

If only they lived in France. Late last week, labor unions and corporate representatives there agreed to limit after-hours e-mails. The agreement, which would give workers an 11-hour e-mail-free window, aims to improve work-life balance, particularly for those who work with clients in distant time zones. Word of the French e-mail limits went viral in the United States, where work is increasingly encroaching on the rest of life, one message at a time.

More than four of 10 cellphone-owning adults (44 percent) have slept near their phones so that they don’t miss a text or an e-mail, according to 2012 data from the Pew Internet Project.

Statistics on the volume of late-night work-related e-mails are hard to come by, but one thing is clear: Middle-of-the-night e-mailing is a source of stress — on both sides of the “send” button.

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Consider Liz Cohen, executive director of Families First Parenting Programs in Cambridge and a bad sleeper. She’s also a boss who often sends e-mails at 3 a.m.

“I’ll come in the next day, and my staff will be like, ‘Had a rough night?’ ” she said. “It’s not good. I’m broadcasting that I don’t have good boundaries. I’m setting unfair expectations for a nonprofit where the salaries aren’t high. I’m modeling bad behavior.”

No one is forcing Cohen to sit up typing late at night, but even so, she’s so eager to get back to bed that she makes typos and skips niceties.

“I won’t start with, ‘Dear so-and-so,’ or I don’t sign my name,” she said. “I’ve gotten [negative] feedback.”

Indeed, the hour at which an e-mail is sent is so significant — in some cases, the timing of the message has become the message — that subscription services have cropped up to automatically send an e-mail hours after it was actually written.

Alexander Moore, the founder of one such service, Boomerang, which charges up to $15 per month and works with Gmail and Microsoft Outlook, says that not everyone is trying to conceal late-night habits. Some users want to give that impression and schedule e-mails written during the workday to take flight late at night.

“It goes both ways,” he said.

But deception can backfire. Moore, in fact, has been the victim of his own success. As the head of a startup, and a man who likes to sleep from 1 until 9 a.m., he regularly writes updates for investors in the middle of the night, then schedules them to go out through Boomerang at 6 a.m.

“One day I got a call from an investor at 6:45 a.m.,” Moore said. “He said he knew I’d be up because I always e-mail then.”

In Cambridge, Lauren Holliday is new to her marketing job at Launch Academy, a boot camp for aspiring software engineers, and worries about the impression she’ll make on others if they know she’s up at all hours.

“I don’t want to look too obsessed,” she said. “People might wonder, where is your work-life balance? I have a family, why don’t you?”

But even as corporate America preaches the importance of work-life balance, when the boss is the one e-mailing late at night, it sends the message that around-the-clock work is expected, said Allison Rimm , a Boston-based management consultant.

“You can have all the policies in the world,” she said. “But if you are the leader, and you’re sending late-night e-mails, that creates a certain culture. It’s a real leadership issue.”

Sometimes overnight e-mails are sent colleague-to-colleague. Rimm recalled a former coworker at a local hospital who sent her an e-mail at 11:30 p.m. — which she didn’t see because she was asleep — and then a follow-up e-mail at 5 a.m., which she also didn’t see because she was asleep.

“I wrote you last night,” the morning e-mail read, “but since you didn’t respond I’m going ahead with my plan.”

Depending on the employee’s job, late-night e-mails can create issues beyond insomnia, said Kabrina Krebel Chang , an assistant professor of business law at Boston University School of Management.

“It could constitute overtime,” she said, “and when the line between work and not work is blurred, it raises all sorts of liability issues.”

Then there is the issue of coherence. Jim Pond, a partner in James and Matthew + Company, a Leominster ad agency, regularly wakes from a dream in the middle of the night, reaches for his phone, and e-mails the client his idea.

Asked whether sometimes the idea seems less good once the sun has risen, he said no.

“Clients appreciate that we are thinking about them,” he said, noting that one of his firm’s employees, a new mom, also enjoys middle-of-the-night e-mails.

“Her baby might wake her up at 2 a.m., and she’ll check her e-mail and get a little work done,” he said cheerfully.

So, how do things look from the mom’s perspective? Reached at home, Laurie Busby said that while her 8-month-old actually sleeps through the night, she’s often up, and hearing the e-mail pings from her laptop, cellphone, or iPad.

“There have been numerous occasions when he asked me to research a company, and I know he means do it when you can,” she said. “But I want to do it right away. I would rather stay up until 4 a.m. I want to impress him.”

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.
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