Do you typically read and respond to work emails on the weekend? You probably already realize that these after-hours communications add to your own stress. But you may not be aware just how much those emails affect the rest of your family, too.
A 2018 study out of Virginia Tech University shed light on this topic. It found that just the expectation of being available for work after hours causes stress and anxiety for employees. But the researchers also found that employees’ family members experience negative feelings, too.
The study got a lot of attention. It’s frequently cited in articles and policy discussions about changing our damaging relationship with email.
So I was excited to talk recently to one of the study’s authors, Bill Becker. I learned more about his research on weekend work emails and other damaging email behaviors.
A Bad Boss Inspires Email Research
Becker is an associate professor of management at Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business. His research focuses on the role of emotions in workplace issues.
And email is definitely a topic that can stir up a lot of emotion. Becker saw this firsthand. A few years ago, his wife got a new boss. That boss expected senior team members to respond within five minutes to the boss’s emails.
Those unreasonable email demands caused Becker’s wife to quit her job. The experience inspired Becker to start researching how people behave with regard to work email.
In 2015, Becker was co-author of an article called “Hot Buttons and Time Sinks: The Effects of Electronic Communication During Nonwork Time on Emotions and Work-Nonwork Conflict.” That study found that people say things in email that they wouldn’t say face to face, and that negative emails are more impactful than positive emails.
How the Email Study Took Shape
After that Becker continued to explore the impact of weekend work emails and other after-hours communications. He drew on my work in his research, including my HBR article “Your Late-Night Emails Are Hurting Your Team.”
Becker’s interest in this topic led to his 2018 study. His co-authors on this study were Liuba Y. Belkin, Lehigh University; Samantha A. Conroy, Colorado State University; and Sarah Tuskey, a Virginia Tech Ph.D. student in executive business research.
Becker and his colleagues surveyed MBA program alumni and other professionals. They received 639 surveys.
Participants were asked to provide contact info for their significant other and a manager in their organization. In response, 228 participants provided information on their significant other. And 252 provided their manager’s email.
Becker and his colleagues then sent surveys to the significant others and managers. Of that group, 142 significant others completed the survey, and 103 managers did.
The professionals in the study came from 17 diverse industries. They included people at all levels of their organizations. An equal number of men and women were surveyed.
Weekend Work Emails Cause Stress, Anxiety
The survey revealed that expecting an employee to be available to work after hours creates stress and anxiety. That’s true even if they don’t actually end up doing work.
And that’s true not only for the employees, but also their families. The constant stressor of weekend work emails and other after-hours communication can even lead to burnout.
This “anticipatory stress” makes employees unable to disengage from work while at home. The expectation to be always on led to higher anxiety and decreased sleep quality. The study found that on the days participants expected their employers to contact them after hours, they felt worse. They also had more conflicts with their partners.
Interestingly, the participants didn’t notice the increased conflict these work communications caused, perhaps because they were pre-occupied by the work. But their partners reported higher levels of anxiety and lower relationship satisfaction. Becker theorized that the participants’ “work-self” was more stressed, and when this “work-self” shows up at home, we run the risk of treating loved ones like colleagues and employees.
Becker and his colleagues wrote:
We argue that regardless of the actual time employees spend on work communications during non-work hours, the mere presence of organizational norms to monitor work-related electronic communication after hours diminishes employee well-being via increased negative affect because of frequent micro-role transitions between the work and non-work domains.
I found that concept of “micro-role transitions” really interesting—do you recognize a different “work-self” vs. your “persona/family self?”
The Solution: Set Email Policies, Expectations
What should we take away from Becker’s study? He says that “flexible schedules” often aren’t a benefit. That’s because the tradeoff is that employees feel that they must answer emails during the evenings, on weekends and even on vacation.
He suggests that employers formally state expectations for weekend work emails and any other after-hours work.
Becker’s recommendation echoes one that I consistently make as well. I believe that all organizations should establish formal expectations of availability, including weekend work emails and many other facets of workplace communication.
Without guidelines, it’s just too easy for habits that damage productivity to take root in an organization. For example, if one manager starts sending emails at all hours, that speeds up the pace of communication for everyone.
You can learn more about creating a communications policy for your organization in my book “Work Without Walls” and the other links throughout this article. I also encourage you to check out more of Becker’s fascinating work. Besides email, he’s researched topics including employee incentives and how our work-related emotions are related to how we identify at work.