Organizational expectations to monitor work emails after work hours can lower both employees and their spouses’ marital satisfaction and overall well-being, a new study suggests.
The research was recently presented at the Academy of Management annual meeting held in Chicago, Illinois, and is published in the Academy of Management Best Paper Proceedings.
Home, but not home
After miraculously pulling off three different meetings and submitting two market reports for your boss, you would think you rightfully deserve a hearty meal with your family and a nice, hot bath.
Then, there comes an email.
You’re home, but in front of a laptop, booking a conference room for your boss’s meeting tomorrow.
In the modern work culture, this example isn’t just a story, but a reality for many American workers.
According to a survey of more than 2000 American employees, 57 percent think technology has ruined the definition of a family dinner.
Previously, researchers from Lehigh University and Virginia Tech have found that, regardless of the actual time employees spend monitoring work emails after work hours, organizational expectancy alone can make them less able to detach from work, more exhausted, and have lower work-life balance.
That study was the first to identify email-related expectations as a job stressor.
“There are a lot of studies on stress, how stress influences employee performance, on how anxiety leads to negative mental and physical outcomes,” said co-author Liuba Belkin, an associate professor of management at Lehigh University.
“What we are bringing to the picture is that it’s not necessarily the time people spend on emails, it’s this notion of expectation. So it’s something that’s not really formal.”
This year, prompted by multiple feedbacks from their readers, the researchers conducted further studies on whether this organizational expectancy for availability lowers marital satisfaction and overall well-being of employees’ spouses.
Out of their professional networks and from the alumni networks of their universities, the researchers were able to recruit 142 sets of full-time employees and their spouses from various industries and organizations, including technology, education, government, finance and healthcare.
The average age range of the participants was 36-40.
In addition, they were able to recruit 105 managers, whose emails were provided by the participating employees.
The researchers asked employees questions regarding the organizational expectations for email monitoring outside of work, how often and for how long they checked their emails outside of work, and their overall health and marital satisfaction.
Then, the researchers asked their spouses to report their own anxiety level toward their spouse’s use of emails during non-work hours and their overall health and marital satisfaction.
Lastly, they asked the managers about the organizational expectations for email monitoring outside of work to see if it is not just the employees who think that there are high expectations.
The researchers found that the employees spend over 7 hours a week monitoring work emails and check work emails every hour outside of their usual work hours.
But regardless of the actual time spent answering emails, the researchers found that the organizational expectations alone lowered both the employees and their spouses’ overall well-being and marital satisfaction.
“What’s interesting that we found was that this anxiety really has this contagion effect, spillover effect to their significant others or partners,” said Belkin.
“Because of this expectation, they also feel anxiety and also have lower perception of marital satisfaction and overall health.”
In addition, the researchers verified that the employees and their managers’ expectations to monitor emails outside of work hours were consistent.
“Our research exposes the reality: ‘flexible work boundaries’ often turn into ‘work without boundaries,’ compromising an employee’s and their family’s health and well-being,” co-author William Becker, a Virginia Tech associate professor of management in the Pamplin College of Business, said in a statement.
The researchers suggest remedies on both organizational and personal levels.
First, for organizations, they suggest setting strict policies that reduce the organizational expectations.
But when this is not an option, they recommend being creative and explicit with their plan Bs.
For example, organizations could set up off-hour email windows or email schedules for different employees with similar responsibilities to rotate days of availability. While they might still have to be available on a few days, employees can rest on other days, knowing that others would also know that they are off.
When even these alternatives are not possible, the researchers suggest organizations should at least be very clear about the organizational expectancy during the hiring process so the employees are aware of their responsibilities from the beginning.
“If the nature of a job requires email availability, such expectations should be stated formally as a part of job responsibilities,” Becker said in a statement.
Second, for the employees, the researchers suggest that they really think about the importance of meaningful relationships and practice putting boundaries, such as having a family policy of no gadgets around dinner tables.
The researchers believe that being mindful is the key to healthy family relationships.
“While there are some parts organizations can do to manage policies, employees themselves need to try to be more mindful and put boundaries,” said Belkin.
“When we’re there, we’re there.”
The good and the bad
While they are not discounting any of the benefits of a more connected society through technology, the researchers suggest that it is equally important to be aware of the possible negative effects of staying connected too much.
“What we are saying is that managers need to be aware of this constant leash that they have on their employees. Because now that we have smartphones, they know you are checking emails,” said Belkin.
“So balance is the key.”
The researchers would like to work with different organizations to develop better policies and further study other impacts that the organizational expectations can have on employees.
Hyeyeun Jeon is from South Korea and a graduate from Carnegie Mellon University with a double major in Professional Writing and International Relations. She is passionate about non-fiction storytelling. She loves reading, watching, writing and producing stories about extraordinary lives of everyday people.