Work Emails May Be Taking a Toll on Your Mental Health — And Your Relationship

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By Jamie Ducharme

Responding to a late-night email might win you points with your boss, but it won’t do you any favors at home, a new study suggests.

Being expected to monitor work emails 24/7 may take a toll on the mental health and well-being of both employees and their partners, according to research published recently in Academy of Management Best Paper Proceedings.

Researchers surveyed 142 people who were employed full-time, as well as their significant others, about their organizations’ expectations around electronic communications. The couples also answered questions about their health, well-being and relationship satisfaction. About 100 of these individuals’ managers also answered survey questions, adding to conclusions about organizational expectations.

Individuals who said they felt an obligation to check professional emails outside of traditional work hours also tended to report higher levels of anxiety and lower measures of well-being, the researchers found. This effect seemed to be true regardless of how much time individuals actually spent on their work accounts, suggesting that the mere expectation of being online was enough to take a toll.

What’s more, the effect didn’t stop at employees. The partners of people who were expected to be online around the clock also reported decreased well-being, health and relationship satisfaction, pointing to a “spillover effect” resulting from the behavior, the study says.

Liuba Belkin, an associate professor of management at Lehigh University and one of the study’s co-authors, said in an email to TIME that, ideally, the results should change the way businesses approach technology expectations.

If they can’t do away with leisure time emailing all together, “Organizations could set off-hour email windows and limit use of electronic communications outside of those windows, or set up email schedules when various employees are available to respond,” Belkin says. “The basic idea would be to create clear boundaries for employees.”

Being up-front about communication policies when a new employee starts a job could also help reduce anxiety down the road, Belkin says.

And employees aren’t totally powerless to their workplaces’ cultures, either. Belkin recommends mindfulness exercises, such as meditation, for countering job-related anxiety.

“Mindfulness training has been shown to be an effective approach to reducing anxiety and work-related negative affect,” Belkin says. “Even though employees cannot control email expectations, mindfulness is a practice within the control of the employee.”

 

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