Does a blanket ban on out-of-hours emails actually help our wellbeing?
For lots of us, checking our inboxes is the first thing we do in the morning and the last thing we do at night, meaning we rarely get a real break from work.
And although many employers expect staff to be responsive around the clock, it’s exacting a high toll on our health and wellbeing.
Earlier this year, a survey by Microsoft found that the UK’s “always-on” culture is responsible for stress and anxiety, with 86% of respondents saying they had “issues switching off”. A further 80% admitted they’d had trouble sleeping because of anxiety around their work and availability - and 79% said they struggled with feelings of failure.
Some argue the answer is to simply ban work emails outside of office hours. In theory, this should prevent employers from pressuring staff to do overtime and stop employees from feeling guilty about ignoring their inboxes. But does it do more harm than good?
In 2016, French employees won the legal right to avoid work emails outside working hours when the so-called "right to disconnect" law was introduced. Advocates of the move said employees who are expected to check and reply to their emails outside of work were not being paid fairly for their overtime - and that doing so carried a risk of stress, burnout and relationship problems.
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This isn’t the first time limits have been placed on workers’ emails. In 2012, Volkswagen became the first to implement a freeze on workers emails, by preventing its internal servers from routing emails to individual accounts between 6.15pm and 7am.
In 2014, the German vehicle-maker Daimler set up an optional service for staff going on holiday. Instead of the usual “out of office” reply to emails, they could choose to have all new emails automatically deleted.
However, recent studies have suggested banning emails out-of-hours may actually lead to more problems than it solves.
Researchers from the University of Sussex say policies that restrict email access outside of the workday or on weekends could negatively impact workers’ wellbeing, particularly those with “high levels of anxiety and neuroticism.”
The findings, published in the journal Computers in Human Behaviour, suggest that whether banning emails has a positive or negative impact depends on a worker’s personality, as well as their goals.
In particular, those who check their emails out of hours to finish their own tasks or control their workload may be more likely to struggle with a blanket ban. According to the research, these types of people may feel more stressed thinking about the unchecked emails landing in their inboxes.
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“Despite the best intentions of a solution designed to optimise wellbeing such as instructing all employees to switch off their emails outside of work hours to avoid being stressed, this policy would be unlikely to be welcomed by employees who prioritise work performance goals and who would prefer to attend to work outside of hours if it helps them get their tasks completed,” said Dr Emma Russell, study author and senior lecturer in management at the University of Sussex Business School.
“People need to deal with email in the way that suits their personality and their goal priorities in order to feel like they are adequately managing their workload. When people do this, these actions can become relatively habitual, which is more efficient for their work practices.”
Rather than an outright ban, it may be more beneficial for people to deal with work emails as it suits them.
That being said, employers still have to take responsibility and allow their staff a reasonable amount of time away from work. This includes providing clear guidance on working overtime - including sending emails - to ensure staff don’t feel under pressure to do so.
If you struggle to switch off from work, set yourself clear boundaries when it comes to checking your emails. This might mean leaving just 30 minutes in the evening to respond to messages before turning on flight mode, to limit the temptation to check your inbox.
Having a separate work phone - for emails, Slack and other forms of communication, can also help separate work from your personal life.
It’s also important to prioritise what is important, too. If you receive a work email that is urgent and can’t wait until the morning, then go ahead and reply. If you can leave it without getting into hot water with your manager, put your phone away - and enjoy some well-earned time off.