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Emails at Home at Night

With the ubiquity of mobile communication technologies, the distinction between work and non-work hours has blurred.  As business use of these technologies to contact employees during non-work time has increased, academics have taken great interest in its effects. 

One piece of research examined email communications received during non-work hours.*  The authors used responses from 341 employees who completed a report each evening for seven days to indicate how they reacted to the most recent work message received outside of work hours.  Their findings should be of interest to employees and their supervisors.

Most articles in the general media focus on the negative impact on employees of receiving work-related emails during non-work hour.  Reactions range from mildly annoyed to very disturbed.  However, the researchers found that the content of the email had a major impact.  Emails that bring good news or praise cheer people up and are very welcome after hours.

A not-so-startling finding was that the longer an employee spends reading and finishing activities generated by the work email, the more conflict they feel between their work and non-work lives.  That’s when it is viewed as a real infringement. 

They observed that time spent on email is perhaps the most prominent modern day indicator of work stress and overload – much more so than activities like phone calls and meetings.  If you think about it, our most consistent complaint is about the distress we feel because we cannot keep up with emails.  Email stress has assumed a category of its own.

A negatively toned email that took time to handle made people acutely aware of and angry about having to act outside work hours.  Emails from supervisors generated more anger than ones from non-supervisors.  Employees seem to feel more flexibility in whether to respond to non-supervisors right away, but they feel obliged to respond to their supervisors, which makes them angry.  Throw in a dollop of a supervisor who mistreats them along with a scoop of negative tone and you have a powder keg of anger. 

Imagine you are at work and have a nasty supervisor who sends you an email with a negative tone.  You don’t like it, but it goes with the job.  Then imagine the same scenario except that your formal work day has ended and you are home.  Now that person has followed you home, a condition that crosses well over the line of what you are willing to accept in ho-hum fashion.  If you have a partner at home to complain to, you can get really worked up with righteous indignation.

Finally, some people believe strongly that their work and non-work lives should be separate.  Unsurprisingly, they react most negatively to responding to work emails outside work time.

So supervisors, if you are going to email your direct reports after work hours, be nice!

Dr. Thomas Begley is dean of the Lally School of Management at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

* M.M. Butts, W.J. Becker, & W.R. Boswell,” Hot Buttons and Time Sinks: The Effects of Electronic Communication during Nonwork Time on Emotions and Work-Nonwork Conflict,” Academy of Management Journal, 58: 763-788, 2015.