Today, 95 percent of Americans navigate the world with a tiny computer permanently pressed into the palms of our hands. Phones, it seems, have become an artificial extension of our bodies, altering our brains to the degree that many of us even suffer withdrawals in the form of physical, phantom sensations — you know, those imagined, dull vibrations you sometimes feel inside of your pocket. And when it comes to silencing the ceaseless pings and buzzes or taking actual breaks from the incessant refreshing of email and social media apps, most of us will say we want to but can’t seem to commit.
Yet, in this age of never-ending connectedness, the lack of necessary boundaries is having serious repercussions on our lives. The inability to set limits on communication is destroying our mental health and our interpersonal relationships, particularly when it comes to interacting with the people at our workplaces outside of work.
A recent study co-authored by William Becker, a Virginia Tech associate professor; Liuba Belkin of Lehigh University, Samantha Conroy of Colorado State University and Sarah Tuskey, a Virginia Tech Ph.D. student, suggests that checking work email after hours is severely damaging to workers' mental health. The study demonstrates that the culture of so-called 'flexible work boundaries' has, for many, spiraled into 'work with no boundaries’. Out of the 142 full-time workers and their significant others surveyed, individuals who felt an obligation to check work emails outside of work hours reported higher levels of anxiety.
Though most of us probably didn't need a study to confirm what we've already been feeling, whether 'sunday scaries' or a general, prolonged dread of weekend work notifications, now there are numbers to back it up. The study found that employees don’t even have to respond to work emails after hours in order to experience negative effects on mental state and personal relationships. Just the mere expectation of off-hours communication is enough to cause a spike in anxiety for employees and their partners. Additionally, Dr. Becker, Virginia Tech associate professor, told Refinery29, “Women did show slightly higher anxiety about email and slightly lower relationship satisfaction.”
The results of this study are very much in line with what many overworked employees have been saying for years. But, how easy is it to separate our work life from our personal one? For Ana Mendez*, a junior employee at a major television channel headquartered in New York City, approaching boundary-setting has been precarious as a recent hire.
“In most work settings [setting boundaries] is definitely an issue,” Mendez told Refinery29. “I feel like I don't need to respond to all emails but I do need to know what is happening in the threads and mention at some point to my boss that I saw it.”
Though the study did include a mix of people, from full time professionals to MBA students, when it comes to early-career professionals, the ability to set and adhere to work-related boundaries can be particularly challenging.
“I had many general doubts about myself and [my] qualifications the first few days,” Mendez said, noting that she is still learning how to communicate with her boss and other team members. “I'm coming from film [and] media and [it’s] is all about giving more time for less money at entry level jobs, and making yourself totally dispensable. It's hard.”
The always-on work culture in the U.S. can make navigating work expectations and dynamics particularly difficult. But disconnecting is a challenge in and of itself for people all around the world. Still, in some places, things are slowly changing. In 2004, France established that an employee not being available by phone or email outside of work hours was not an act of misconduct. In 2017, the country also introduced a law that requires organizations to clearly negotiate terms of communication with prospective employees. Other countries have proposed similar measures but, for most of the world, this problem is still pervasive.
Jeune San Juan, a Senior Marketing Manager for Digital and Publicity at a department store chain in the Philippines, told Refinery29 her work’s communication style is stressful. “Our operations team has the tendency to raise concerns during weekends and holidays,” San Juan said. “I’ve kind of gotten used to replying on weekends. I’m not sure if it’s a higher sense of accountability or I just got sucked into this black hole.”
Mendez and San Juan are still learning to balance meeting their supervisors' expectations with taking care of themselves. For both women, in addition to boundary-setting, having a mindfulness practice is paramount to their self-care. San Juan, for example, uses meditation apps and checks emails only after lunch.
“Even with high expectations to monitor, we think people need to find time to disconnect for an hour or two and engage fully with their relationships and non-work life,” Becker said, emphasizing that firm boundaries are crucial to wellness. But Becker also makes it clear that the onus is not all on the employee.
“We would also encourage organizations and front line leaders to be very clear about expectations and encourage employees to turn off their devices at certain times,” Becker continued, adding that managers and other leaders should consider disciplining those who violate these parameters.
Ultimately, both Mendez and San Juan’s experiences echo the study's findings. In this era of near-constant connectivity, prioritizing time away from our ever-beckoning devices may be difficult, but the benefits to our health and happiness are certainly worth the extra effort. Besides, San Juan added, boundaries have a pretty great return on investment: “A well-rounded employee delivers better service than an employee who is there 24/7.”
*Name has been changed.