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After-work emails cause stress, even if you don't open them

A recent study found that it's not just the act of bringing work home, but the anticipation of having to respond to work emails at home that’s causing stress.

Study finds expectations to monitor work emails after hours causes anxiety and impact health and well-being

“Every time you check your email or glance at your phone, your brain actually shifts back to work mode ... so you can get stuck in work mode all the time.” (Shutterstock)

Bringing work home cuts into personal time and the opportunity to decompress. But a recent study found that it's not just the act of bringing work home, but the anticipation of having to respond to work emails at home that's causing stress.  

The study, titled "Killing me softly: Electronic communications monitoring and employee and spouse well-being" shows that the mere expectation of monitoring and responding to work emails off business hours is putting a strain on our health and the health of our families.

"We surveyed employees and we found that frequent monitoring or higher expectations to monitor caused stress in the form of anxiety and that the anxiety contributed to poor sleep quality and lower reports of well-being and health," said William Becker, an associate professor at Virginia Tech Pamplin College of Business and co-author of the study.

William Becker, an associate professor at Virginia Tech Pamplin College of Business and co-author of the study. (William Becker/LinkedIn)

Becker finds flexible work boundaries often means working without boundaries.

"Every time you check your email or glance at your phone to see if you have an email or other communication, your brain actually shifts back to work mode," said Becker. "And so what can happen is you can get stuck in work mode all the time."

He says the repercussions of this behaviour extend beyond personal health and happiness to partners and families.

"When we asked significant others for those same employees, what we found is that the anxiety also carried over to the significant other or the spouse. And we also saw that the spouse reported lower sleep quality and lower health and well-being," said Becker.

CEO sets boundaries as an example for employees

Lee-Martin Seymour is the CEO and co-founder of Xref Ltd, an online reference checking company based in Australia. His wife also works at the company and Seymour admits they've had to learn to be better with their personal time.

Lee-Martin Seymour is the CEO and co-founder of Xref Ltd (Lee-Martin Seymour/LinkedIn)

"Sometimes I'm trying to have a conversation with my wife and she's looking at her screen. Sometimes you just gotta be polite and say 'let's put the phones down,'" said Seymour.

He said they set boundaries for the good of their relationship, but also to be an example for his employees.

"Ultimately, everybody needs the ability to turn around and say 'I'm not available,'" said Seymour. "Sometimes I have to switch off my phone and leave it at home so that I can really engage with my children on the weekends."

Becker admits that disconnecting from work responsibilities is easier said than done.

"It's really tough. Students expect responses immediately and it's just hard to say when my work hours start and stop."

 It's just hard to say when my work hours start and stop.- William Becker, associate professor at Virginia Tech Pamplin College of Business

Both men recommend talking to a manager to address the stress that comes with after work emails. But, ultimately, the responsibility is on the corporations and their leaders to make sure they don't bother employees during their downtime.

If the companies don't take responsibility, Becker says workers will start to burn out and companies will ultimately lose money.

About the Author

Rubina Ahmed-Haq

Business columnist

Rubina is a business columnist who has been covering money matters for more than 10 years. Her career began 20 years ago as a news reporter. After a decade on the news beat she realized her passion was discussing personal finance issues. Now, she weighs in on money and workplace matters on CBC Radio, CBC TV and CBC News Network. Her goal is to get Canadians to take control of their personal finances on their own.

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