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24/7 work emails impact the health and relationships of employees

A really interesting study claims that for many, "flexible work boundaries" become "work without boundaries." This is something that I have been banging on about for some time.

What the researchers say

Personal relationships and home life suffer for those tied to their work emails round-the-clock, they found. The study is the first to test the relationship between organizational expectations to monitor work-related electronic communication during non-work hours and the health and relationship satisfaction of employees and their significant others.

The researchers report that such expectations are "an insidious stressor that not only increases employee anxiety, decreases their relationship satisfaction and has detrimental effects on employee health, but also that it negatively affects partner (significant other) health and marital satisfaction perceptions," said the lead author.

The research is published in the Academy of Management Best Paper Proceedings.

Regardless of how much time individuals actually spent monitoring and answering work emails outside of work hours, the mere presence of organizational expectations to monitor such communications leads to employee anxiety and has negative effects on wellbeing, which also affects their partners (spouses/significant others), they said.

"Thus, we demonstrated that these normative expectations for work email monitoring during non-work hours is a significant stressor above and beyond actual workload and time spent on handling it during non-work hours." In addition, the strong negative impact of such organizational expectations was found to not only affect employees but also their significant others' wellbeing, demonstrating a "spillover effect."

The research builds upon earlier work by the same team that examined organizational expectations to monitor email and its effects on employees' ability to detach from work, emotional exhaustion and work-family balance perceptions. That study, "Exhausted, But Unable to Disconnect: The Impact of Email-Related Organizational Expectations on Work-Family Balance," was the first to identify email-related expectations as a job stressor along with already established factors such as high workload, interpersonal conflicts, physical environment or time pressure.

So what?

Human beings were not designed to work more than a certain number of hours. The "normal" 9-5 workday (of blessed memory) was already too long for our neurogenetics to handle — hence the constant rise in the level of depression.

Feeling that we must be "on" after work hours adds to our effectual workload and, thus, to the current high rates of work-related stress and mental illness.

What now?

Many employers, particularly in Europe, have instituted a cut-off time for answering business emails. That's a good start. However, a more concentrated look at the whole work environment from a human sociogenetic, not just a business perspective, is needed.

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