I check my e-mail in the morning before I get out of bed. So does my husband. So does my sister. Americans are connected to work via smartphone for 13.5 hours of every workday, according to a 2012 study, and that number has likely climbed over the last four years.
At many organizations, employees are expected to be electronically connected 24/7, and that expectation may be taking a toll. A study presented this month at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management links after-hours e-mail with emotional exhaustion and poor work-family balance.
“It’s not just the physical time spent on e-mails that leads to burnout,” says study co-author Liuba Belkin, an associate professor of management at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. “The mere expectation that you must be available, even if you’re not working on those e-mails, is what actually contributes to exhaustion.”
Mounting evidence suggests that extended hours and continuous work during off hours — enabled by e-mail and other forms of electronic communication — damages the physical and emotional health of employees. Limiting workplace e-mail has become a trend in Europe, but it has been slow to take hold in the United States.
Belkin and colleagues William Becker of Virginia Tech and Samantha Conroy of Colorado State University conducted a survey of 297 adults across a variety of industries, from banking to manufacturing to healthcare. The team first asked the participants to estimate how long they spent on after-hours e-mails during a typical work week. The average response was eight hours per week — the equivalent of an additional full day of work. Next, the participants responded to a series of statements that measured their ability to detach from work after hours, and their levels of emotional exhaustion.
In a follow-up survey, the team measured indicators of work-family balance, then compared the two surveys. Belkin and her co-authors expected employees to be more exhausted if they spent more time on e-mails, but the main driver of exhaustion turned out to be the mere anticipation of receiving work e-mails.
Because of that, people were unable to mentally detach from work. That lingering attachment was associated with feelings of burnout and an inability to balance work and family. The results were consistent across gender and age.
While employers can institute policies to limit after-hours e-mails, true change requires a culture shift, says Belkin. “If everyone is answering after-hours e-mails, it perpetuates a culture where you feel obliged to do it.”
And such a culture can affect a company’s bottom line, she points out: Research shows that higher emotional exhaustion and poor work-family balance leads to higher stress, lower job satisfaction, and, in the end, lower productivity. “In the end, it hurts employees, but it will hurt organizations as well.”