When Is “After Hours”?

I’m going to sound a lot like the cranky old guy I am today. This fit of pique has been brought on by a new study called “Exhausted But Unable to Disconnect”. It was authored by Liuba Belkin of Lehigh University, William Becker of Virginia Tech and Samantha A. Conroy of Colorado State University, and it shows it’s not just the amount of time spent on work emails, but the anticipatory stress and expectation of answering after-hours emails that are draining employees. 

When I got into the business world, neither email nor cell phones existed. When you walked out the door to go home, you really did leave the office behind unless you chose to take some work home with you. There was little fear that the boss would summon you to do something since to get you the message to do so would involve either a telephone call to your home landline or sending a search party to find you. If you were out you were pretty much unreachable. Disruptions to your downtime were rare.

Obviously, that’s not the case today. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of not responding to an email and receiving a phone call from someone not very long after the mail was received. It’s bad enough when that’s a client or vendor or friend. When it’s a boss, it’s worse since there’s very little ability to ignore it for a bit. This study bears that out:

The study is not the first research to find after-hours emails hazardous to workers. It breaks new ground in focusing not primarily on mail volume and the extra time it adds to the workday but on a little-explored aspect of the problem: the mere expectation that workers will respond to email in their off hours. Such a job norm, the professors write, “creates anticipatory stress” and “influences employee’s ability to detach from work regardless of the time required for email.”

All of us need time to recharge. The study shows that just the expectation that a nastygram from the boss could be coming is just as bad as the actual demands. As managers, we need to make it clear that disrupting our team’s downtime is not going to be the norm. Our organizational cultures need to demonstrate respect for the need to disengage. There needs to be time that truly is “after hours” or the odds are that there will be a breakdown of some sort during business hours. None of us want that, do we?

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