Study: Work emails at home can impact your health

New study claims just expecting to have to answer work emails at home is bad for a family's health. (Photo illustration courtesy of Virginia Tech)

BLACKSBURG, Va. – A new study from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) says the expectation to monitor work email during non-work hours are detrimental to the health and well-being of employees.

And not just employees – it appears to be bad for family members’ health as well.

William Becker, a Virginia Tech associate professor, co-authored the study entitled “Killing me softly: electronic communications monitoring and employee and significant-other well-being” that argues such expectations result in anxiety, which adversely affects the health of employees and their families.

“The competing demands of work and non-work lives present a dilemma for employees,” Becker said, “which triggers feelings of anxiety and endangers work and personal lives.”

Other studies have shown that the stress of increased job demands leads to strain and conflict in family relationships when the employee is unable to fulfill roles at home — “such as when someone brings work home to finish up.”

Their new study, he said, demonstrates that employees do not need to spend actual time on work in their off-hours to experience the harmful effects. The mere expectation to be available or reachable increases the strain on employees and their significant others. The ‘electronic leash’ is a burden.

Unlike work-related demands that require time away from home, “the insidious impact of ‘always on’ organizational culture is often unaccounted for or disguised as a benefit — increased convenience, for example, or higher autonomy and control over work-life boundaries,” Becker said. “Our research exposes the reality: ‘flexible work boundaries’ often turn into ‘work without boundaries,’ compromising an employee’s and their family’s health and well-being.”

But if employees and their families have anxiety and health issues, that’s not good for employers. So what’s a boss to do? Becker said reducing the expectation to monitor electronic communication outside of work would be ideal.

When that’s not an option, the solution may be to establish boundaries on when electronic communication is acceptable, for instance setting up time windows or schedules when employees are available to respond to email during off-hours.

And communication is key. “If the nature of a job requires email availability, such expectations should be stated formally as a part of job responsibilities.” Knowing these expectations upfront may reduce anxiety in employees and increase understanding from their family members, Becker said.

As for employees, they could consider practicing mindfulness, which has been shown to be effective in reducing anxiety, Becker said. Mindfulness may help employees “be present” in family interactions, which could help reduce conflict and improve relationship satisfaction. And, he added, mindfulness is within the employee’s control when email expectations are not.

“Employees today must navigate more complex boundaries between work and family than ever before,” said Becker. “Employer expectations during nonwork hours appear to increase this burden, as employees feel an obligation to shift roles throughout their nonwork time. Efforts to manage these expectations are more important than ever, given our findings that employees’ families are also affected by these expectations.”

The study, co-authored with Liuba Y. Belkin, of Lehigh University; Samantha A. Conroy, of Colorado State University; and Sarah Tuskey, a Virginia Tech Ph.D. student in executive business research, will be presented at the Academy of Management annual meeting in Chicago on August 10-14.

Source: Va. Tech press release