Broad-based recommendations might be doing workers a disservice
There has been plenty of press over the past couple of years calling for bans when it came to after-hours emails. In 2017, France went so far as to establish a “right-to-disconnect” law requiring employers to establish hours when workers should not use email.
But a recent study out of the U.K. suggests these kinds of restrictions might actually cause psychological harm to some employees.
“Despite the best intentions of a solution designed to optimize well-being — 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 prioritize work performance goals and who would prefer to attend to work outside of hours if it helps them get their tasks completed,” says Emma Russell, lead author and senior lecturer in human resource management at the University of Sussex in Brighton, U.K.
For those employees who have “high levels of anxiety and neuroticism,” not allowing them to access emails after hours would hinder their overall work performance, she says.
“People need to deal with email in the way that suits their personality and their goal priorities in or-der to feel like they are adequately managing their workload.”
Using mixed methods across two studies with knowledge workers who use work email, the researchers examined whether individual differences in personality can explain why there is a “goal paradox” of email actions.
In the first study, interviews of 28 people uncovered 72 email actions that impact goals related to work, well-being, control and concern. The second study involving 341 people addressed whether personality traits could predict email activity directed toward these four goals.
They found that people deal with email differently because they strive for different “trait-relevant goals.”
As a result, organizations and policy-makers who make broad-based recommendations about how to deal with work email “might in fact be doing workers a disservice,” says the researchers in “Personality differences as predictors of action-goal relationships in work-email activity,” published in Computers in Human Behavior.
“Whilst some goals and some workers may be advantaged by adopting generalized action recommendations, for others these actions may not allow them to pursue the goals that are personally valuable to them, and could potentially even impede such goals.”
Allison Cowan, director of human capital research at the Conference Board of Canada in Ottawa, is not surprised to hear the results of the study.
“We’ve learned a one-size-fits-all workplace policy is not always the best way to go. A policy like an email ban outside of working hours can be very well-intentioned but can also be short-sighted,” she says.
“It can reduce the ability for workers to have flexible work arrangements, which are really up in popularity.”
“In some jurisdictions, employers have a duty to accommodate flexible work arrangements, so employers need to be careful when implementing these broad-based policies,” says Cowan.
The sheer overload of office communications, such as email, has placed a lot of stress on workers, especially considering its disruptive nature, she says.
“We’ve heard lots of research around interruptions and focus and productivity: If someone’s interrupted, say by checking their email, it can take 20 to 30 minutes for you to get your focus back on your original task. It really can have a big impact on productivity.”
Effective policies should not be implemented in a knee-jerk fashion, according to a health and safety expert.
“Something happens and, all of a sudden, we now pass a policy and it hasn’t really been thought out,” says Andrew Harkness, strategy advisor at Workplace Safety and Preventions Services (WSPS) in Mississauga, Ont.
“Employers tend to use blanket policies more often than not and it’s almost the lazy way to manage. We want to be careful about making sure that when we pass policies, that we are doing it for the right reasons and not because we’re afraid to deal with an isolated, specific issue.”
But for those who prefer to do some work after hours, a flexible plan is best for those employees’ mental health, says Harkness.
“Maybe I’m taking care of my sick parents in an afternoon.. work at home in the evening and catch up on reports and I can flex around those areas, but I have that discretion to do so and I have access to the resources I need to be able to do so, which then minimizes my stress issues.”
HR’s role in email balance
HR should actively participate in these conversations, according to Harkness.
“There’s an opportunity to talk about things like email etiquette, and ‘What are some of the practices that we as an organization want to emulate?’” he says.
“What we say to staff we should be reinforcing with leadership — things like making sure that we’re very careful about when we are sending emails and contacting people, especially after hours. Are these emergency situations? Are we [putting] right in the subject line: ‘I’m sending you this email, but please don’t respond until tomorrow.’
Educating people on how to effectively deal with emails should also be part of the HR toolkit, says Cowan.
“There are all sorts of strategies on how to send effective emails, how to help people organize their emails but, really, HR needs to focus on the value of disconnecting and the impact that can have on employee health and productivity,” she says.
“HR’s role is to look to better investments and behaviours and education awareness programs related to how to manage email.”
Crafting a good after-hours policy requires some finesse, but it can and should be successfully done, according to David Brown, employment and human rights lawyer at Kent Employment Law in Kelowna, B.C.
“You could have something in place just as basic as ‘Any overtime that’s being performed outside of regular hours must receive prior approval from a supervisor or a manager.’ That can provide some level of protection. It’s not perfect, but it can help.”
The rules should be clearly de-lineated, he says.
“You can have a policy in place stressing that there’s no expectation that people are going to be working outside of regular hours and that they’re discouraged from doing so and ‘Unless specifically asked, we won’t be paying overtime.’”
Besides the potential effects on health and productivity, employers should keep track of a worker’s after-hours work so a large bill doesn’t appear out of nowhere, he says.
“If somebody can actually demonstrate that they’re working from their home office, and they’re responding to emails, and especially if they’re documenting the time, they could forcibly come back and make a claim for overtime,” says Brown.
“If you’re the employer, you can be completely blindsided by this request because you may not even be aware that this work is being done.”
If need be, an outright ban might work for some organizations.
“You can even go beyond that, where we strictly enforce and say, ‘In order to maintain work-life balance, people are not to be sending or receiving or even reviewing emails outside of regular hours,’” says Brown.