It’s a common complaint among employees: Long after the workday is done, after-hours emails digitally tether them to the office. Whether the message is from a boss, colleague or customer, employees can feel obligated to respond — even when they’re off the clock.
The issue has seen its fair share of media attention. But renewed scrutiny arose after an April collective agreement in France granted 250,000 workers the protected right to not answer work email after 6 p.m.
Some initial reports suggested France had banned work email outright after 6 p.m., which is not the case. But, even so, that new protection is sparking debate about email etiquette, especially as work-life balance, mental health and burnout have become significant concerns.
Many professionals don’t think twice about shooting off a quick email in the evening, but that email can have a significant impact, according to Dianne Hunnam-Jones, Canadian district president at Accountemps in Toronto.
“At the end of the day, I think we’re in a steep decline as a society because we just don’t disconnect,” she said. “If you feel as if you’re constantly on-call, it has a very negative impact.”
Of course, the benefits of being instantly available and accessible are clear, said Hunnam-Jones — and if there is an emergency or a truly urgent situation, after-hours email can be a lifeline.
“But the downside is if people feel that they’re drowning — they have to respond to emails late at night and on weekends and do the work — ultimately, people will suffer from stress and burnout, which ultimately, as we all know, impacts productivity. And it impacts morale and love for a job as well.”
Ongoing burnout and stress can negatively impact retention — which can do serious damage to the bottom line.
“Turnover is a very, very expensive exercise… as an organization, every time you lose somebody, you’re losing profitability,” said Hunnam-Jones.
“And turnover because people are feeling stressed and burnt out and low productivity and morale is unnecessary turnover. There’s always going to be natural attrition and necessary turnover in organizations, but this kind of turnover is unnecessary.”
To combat this, organizations need to put some sort of controls in place around after-hours communication.
“As an organization, you (don’t) have to have a collective agreement or legislation or an email policy written, but there should be a basic practice of respecting people’s downtime,” said Hunnam-Jones. “So there’s the organizational obligation and then there’s your leadership and your managerial obligation... to set that example.”
It’s not necessarily that you need some sort of formal policy in place — but you do need to change the culture and the attitude of managers and leadership, she said.
“It’s the culture you set in the organization.”
Legal concerns around after-hours work
As after-hours email proliferates among employees at all levels — not just CEOs and senior executives — there is increasing potential for legal issues to arise, according to Christine Thomlinson, partner at Rubin Thomlinson in Toronto.
There are two major concerns when it comes to potential legal problems, she said: overtime claims and harassment complaints.
“Employers get claims for overtime and they’re surprised to see that those hours relate to things done outside of normal business hours, where the employer making decisions may have had no idea that this person was answering their manager’s emails at 10 o’clock at night and engaging in two hours of work outside of traditional business hours,” she said.
“So they’re these hidden, potential unpaid overtime hours.”
Often, these claims come up after the employment relationship has soured, said Thomlinson.
“When the relationship is good and everybody is getting what they expect out of it, there tends to be a willingness on the part of employees to put up with these things because they feel like they’re contributing.
“But when the relationship sours — and that isn’t always post-employment — but when the disengagement occurs, there’s a much higher willingness to go out on a limb and make the claim.”
Overtime claims can be especially contentious when they involve employees who work flex hours, she said. In those circumstances, employers might consider a tracking system to keep a record of hours worked.
The issue of harassment complaints is something Thomlinson sees fairly often in relation to after-hours email.
“When that’s happening in a way that is disrespectful or truly unwelcome or, in some way, truly offensive to employees, that can turn into a harassment complaint.”
There are several potential issues related to harassment complaints, according to Ruben Goulart, human resource lawyer and advisor at Bernardi Human Resource Law in Mississauga, Ont.
“(If) you have a fairly aggressive boss who’s dealing with email communication… you do run the risk that the employee may, over time, feel like they’re being bullied,” he said.
“Employees and their managers need to know that they need to maintain a professional level of engagement, and if it’s late at night and you’re tired and you’re making little jokes, little quips, there’s always the risk that may be something that surfaces later in the context of harassment.”
Further to these concerns, there’s also the very real possibility that late-night emails increase the potential for errors, said Goulart.
“There’s always the risk that people late at night are tired and may make mistakes… especially if they’re working with digital devices, BlackBerrys, iPhones, things like that.”
Edelman’s ‘7 to 7 rule’
The Toronto office of Edelman Canada has an interesting response to the conundrum. In a fast-paced organization that centres on client service, unplugging from work had been a challenge for many employees, said Lisa Kimmel, general manager.
“In 2010, we had done an employee survey and... one of the significant findings was that employees were feeling overwhelmed and stressed, and they had specifically identified email as one of the causes of their sentiment,” she said.
“So, as part of a much broader employee engagement initiative, we decided that that would be one of the key elements that we would address.”
Edelman implemented a “7 to 7 rule” — work emails are not allowed outside the hours of 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
“It’s not to say that people aren’t necessarily looking at their emails but they don’t necessarily have to respond until the following day. Or if something is urgent that comes up, then they can call someone who is on their team in order to address that particular request or challenge,” said Kimmel.
Because it’s a rule, not a formal policy, employees police each other, she said.
“It’s actually remarkable how well that works. And I think part of the success is that the leadership team here buys into it, supports it.”
Slippage does happen occasionally, so Kimmel will send out a reminder email — during work hours, of course — every few months or so.
The response from employees has been overwhelmingly positive, she said.
“For employees, it’s a small example, but it’s a big example in terms of what it says about the culture that we’re trying to create here. And the truth is that we want people to have lives outside of work. Our work is demanding, and it’s important that people aren’t doing work 24-7,” said Kimmel.
“It really speaks to the importance of employee engagement overall… this is just one small example of the things you could be doing to ensure that your employees are motivated to come to work every day, to do a great job, and then also to be great brand advocates for an organization.”
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