Banning workers from checking their emails outside of office hours can be harmful to their mental health, a recent study has claimed.
The report, conducted by scientists at the University of Sussex, looked at the effect of workplaces imposing a ban in order to help employees switch off and found that it can also trigger stress. The study also found that strict email policy could be harmful to employees with "high levels of anxiety and neuroticism". Researchers said some employees feel the need to respond to a "growing accumulation of emails" otherwise they can end up feeling overwhelmed.
Dr Emma Russell, a senior lecturer in management at the University of Sussex Business School, told the BBC: "[Blanket bans] would be unlikely to be welcomed by employees who prioritise work performance goals and who would prefer to attend work outside of hours to get their tasks completed.
"People need to deal with email in the way that suits their personality and their goal priorities in order to feel like they are adequately managing their workload."
Some companies have already taken steps to ensure staff are not spending too much time on their emails out of work hours. German carmaker Volkswagen has configured its email system to work from half an hour before the working day begins to half an hour after it ends, and it is switched off during weekends, to decrease stress among its employees.
In France, new legislation came into force in 2017 requiring companies with more than 50 workers to draw up a charter setting out the hours when staff are not supposed to send or answer emails. The law was designed to tackle burnout.
But researchers are now saying a "one-size-fits-all" email policy won’t work and employers should consider all personalities in the workplace.
According to the government's Health and Safety Executive’s Labour Force Survey, stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 44% of all work-related ill health cases, and 57% of all working days were lost due to ill health.
Checking our emails outside work makes it difficult to maintain boundaries between our jobs and personal lives.
Emma Mamo, Head of Workplace Wellbeing at Mind
Emma Mamo, Head of Workplace Wellbeing at Mind, told Refinery29: "Despite our busy lives, modern technology means that many workers are now contactable around the clock. Checking our emails outside work makes it difficult to maintain boundaries between our jobs and personal lives. Employers and managers need to ensure this relentless email-checking culture doesn’t become the norm.
"The causes of work-related stress and poor mental health vary from one employee to another. That’s why Wellness Action Plans can help. Drawn up with your manager, these simple tools facilitate conversations about mental health and help identify each of your unique causes of poor mental health, as well as agreed steps to be taken, and can be shared with other colleagues."
Encouraging a clear work/life balance is imperative, she added, as staff will be "happier, healthier, and more likely to be loyal and productive if their workplace proactively promotes mental wellbeing."
Some companies, including Mind, have already implemented rules when it comes to viewing emails outside of working hours. The mental health charity actively discourages its employees from sending or reading work-related emails between 8pm and 8am.
Twenty-four-year-old PR executive Leena Chauhan said joining a company which actively promoted switching off after working hours "changed her life".
She told Refinery29: "Our boss is a very hard work/play hard type of person and she sees that when you leave work, work is over. She says there is no time for emails in your personal time.
"Working like this has dramatically changed my life. I was so unhappy in my previous roles because I was expected to answer emails day in and day out, and I used to cry all the time because I was conscious that I would be considered bad at my job. I wouldn’t eat or sleep and didn’t care about my appearance. I was severely depressed.
"I lost friends because of my job and because I lacked the time to be able to see them and when I did see them, I was constantly checking my emails and snapping at them. I wasn’t present with my family because I was always on my phone, it was so unhealthy."
In my previous roles I was expected to answer emails all the time. I wouldn't eat or sleep and didn't care about my appearance. I was severely depressed.
But now in her new job, she added, not having to be a slave to her emails has lifted a huge "weight off her shoulders".
"At first I was so shocked they were so flexible. I couldn’t believe it when they told me we weren’t allowed to have our emails on our mobile phones. It made me so much happier. I started going out more and putting more time into seeing my friends and family. I even have time to go to the gym after work."
Leena said that having a flexible employer that respected a work/life balance made her want to do more for the company out of loyalty.
"If I want to answer emails at the weekend now, it’s because I want to do more and impress my boss. I don’t feel bitter or stressed about it." But she doesn’t think legislation is necessary and appreciates that it differs from industry to industry. "I don’t think law needs to be changed in the UK," she added. "But if you are the type of person who gets 6,000 emails over the weekend, maybe you should dedicate an hour of your time to try to manage them. In my industry, we’re not saving lives like doctors, nurses and surgeons so your job doesn’t need to be stressful. You don’t need to be glued to your phones."
Social and content manager Joy Ejaria, 29, told Refinery29 UK that she disagrees that companies should implement a blanket ban on emails and that there should be a process available to those who don't want to check their emails outside of office hours.
She said: "Banning people from making the choice to work in their own time seems counterintuitive. Some people see going above and beyond in their role as a way to excel in their careers. If there are people who don't want to check their emails or work after hours then a process should be put into place for such people.
Not being able to check my emails would flare up my anxiety because I would think maybe I've missed something important.
Joy Ejaria, 29
"I'm a creature of habit. If I've got free time or I hear the chime of a new email, I check it. Not being able to check my emails would flare up my anxiety because I would think maybe I've missed something important.
"I check my emails often because I wouldn't want to return to work after the weekend or annual leave to a huge pile of work. I have a can-do attitude and feel this is a good way to show the company I work for that I do. I once had a job where I had to get permission from management to get access to my emails. I found this detrimental to my mental health because I worked there part-time, so on the days I wasn't there, I would constantly worry about the emails waiting for me."
Hannah Elderfield, a behavioural analyst, agreed and said employers should focus more on giving employees flexible working hours.
She told Refinery29: "It’s no surprise that banning email between certain times could be problematic. If we are to celebrate flexible working, it stands to reason we also celebrate the flexibility of email – ‘flexibility’ being the key term here. It goes two ways; flexibility means not expecting instant responses or for recipients to be at the sender’s beck and call."