The Perils of After-Hours Email

While it may be part of the culture at some organizations for workers to respond after hours to work emails, the practice further blurs the line on the work day and may also have harmful effects on employees, according to new research.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016
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People may soon be reading about the 9-to-5 workday in history books, and that may not be good news for workers.

CareerBuilder gathered responses from 3,244 full-time employees across industries and found that three in five workers believe the traditional 9-to-5 workday is a thing of the past.  Almost half – 49 percent – say they check or answer emails after work and 45 percent complete work outside of office hours.

(Not surprisingly, responses differ based on age. Sixty percent of those 55 and older don't keep working or check/respond to emails (54 percent) outside the office, which is higher than any other age group. Take workers between the ages of 18 to 24. Fifty-two percent say they don't keep working after hours and even less – 41 percent – don't check or answer after-hour emails.)

Working after normal business hours end can pose all sorts of legal, health and productivity issues, experts say.

"This is a challenge  . . .  a slippery slope," says Rosemary Haefner, chief human resources officer at CareerBuilder in Chicago. "You want to make sure you pay people for time they work, but how do you police that or accurately track it when people are on smartphones all over the place?"

Finding the right blend of employee productivity and relaxation without employees feeling burned out or even pressured to stay connected is difficult, she says.

American workers aren't the only ones feeling the pain, either. The French government recently introduced legislation to encourage companies with 50 or more workers to draft formal policies that limit after-hours email usage. But Haefner says this law isn't realistic for many employers, especially multinationals that deal with time-zone differences."Things are not so cookie-cutter," she says, adding that some employers are considering on-call policies similar to those implemented at hospitals, which offer minimal compensation.

Polly Wright, a consulting manager at HR Consultants Inc., in Johnstown, Pa., doesn't believe the French law would survive in the United States.

"We're a 24/7 economy and I don't see us changing from that," she says, adding that companies will implement email policies on a voluntary basis to prevent workers from burning out and quitting. "It's not necessarily going to be regulated by the government, but regulated by the free enterprise of talent."

Contributing to this email struggle is the Fair Labor Standards Act, which dictates that all nonexempt employees must be paid overtime. Now that the FLSA's regulations are increasing the salary level required for exemption, HR's concern is properly paying those employees for any additional hours worked.

She says HR needs to examine the root cause for after-hour emails. In some cases, she says managers may be too busy supervising others to perform administrative work between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.

It comes down to expectations, Wright says. Does the boss expect an immediate answer or can employees wait to respond when they return to work? She says managers must inform their staff of their work habits, expectations and, to avoid unnecessary staff pressure, explain that employees who respond immediately aren't working any harder, just working at different times.

"There will always be a push for productivity, to do more with less," says Wright.  "There's always going to be some company that pushes the envelope and sees talent walk out the door to a company that's more willing to have a realistic expectation [of] employees."

Although responding to work emails after hours may be standard in some workplace cultures, it may have a harmful effect on employees, according to a new study – Exhausted But Unable to Disconnect – coauthored by William Becker, an associate professor at Virginia Tech.

The four year-old study collected data from 297 working adults and found that off-hour emailing negatively impacts employee emotional states, which leads to burnout and diminished work/family balance.

"[I]t was actually the expectation of emails that caused more problems than the actual time spent on emails," says Becker, referring to the condition as anticipatory stress. "That really starts to take a toll on you, even more so than the time you actually spend doing work when you're home."

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According to the study, 80 percent of respondents stated they had at least moderate difficulty detaching from work.  Another 65 percent reported that their expectations of receiving after-hours email were "moderate to high" while 30 percent stated "high or extremely high." On average, respondents spent eight hours a week after work answering email related to their job.

To avoid anticipatory stress, the study's authors suggest establishing email-free days or rotating employee schedules. The authors point to several organizations that have already implemented similar approaches, such as Boston Consulting Group that guarantees one email-free evening a week, Northeast Topping, a health care consulting firm that prohibits correspondence after 10 p.m. and on weekends, and Huffington Post, which shares a similar policy.

Another is Deloitte, a global audit, tax and consulting organization that developed an in-house program several years ago called Flexibility and Predictability. It enables managers to carve out time for email-free periods, explains Lisa Disselkamp, managing director at Deloitte in McLean, Va.

As examples, she says, managers can implement an email moratorium or blackout period and rotate employees to cover client needs.

Although the line has become further blurred between work and family, Disselkamp believes employers are not to blame. As communication tools, emailing and texting have become a natural extension of people's lives.

Still, she says, HR needs to monitor employee work hours and figure out why emails are being sent after work.

"[Q]uantify the number of times this is happening, the cost . . . and the risk to the organization," Disselkamp says, adding that software such as Infor can be configured to prevent emails from being sent at certain times. "[Employers need] a program that sets expectations, gives people the tools, meaning the permission to have these programs in place, and understand how to run them effectively."

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