Balancing ‘Always-On’ Technology with Human Needs

by Granville Triumph

father-daughterDespite gains that companies may realize from employees’ attending to emails after hours, expecting them to do so invites trouble, new research suggests.

A paper entitled “Exhausted but Unable to Disconnect,” presented at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management in Anaheim, Aug. 5-9, found that such expectations play havoc with employees’ well-being and work-family balance, and may weaken job performance as well.

According to study authors Liuba Y. Belkin of Lehigh University, William Becker of Virginia Tech, and Samantha A. Conroy of Colorado State University, “An ‘always on’ culture with high expectations to monitor and respond to emails during non-work time may prevent employees from ever fully disengaging from work, leading to chronic stress and emotional exhaustion.”

Previous studies have focused primarily on email volume and the extra time it adds to workdays. This research breaks new ground by exploring a different aspect of the problem — the expectation that workers will respond to email in their off-hours. Such a job norm, the professors write, “creates anticipatory stress” and “influences employees’ ability to detach from work regardless of the time required for email.”

The authors call on managers “to enforce organizational practices that will help to mitigate these negative effects and protect their employees in the long run. For instance, if completely banning email after-hours is not an option … they may want to establish formal policies and rules on availability for after work hours, such as weekly ‘email-free days’ or specific rotating schedules that will allow employees to manage their work and family time more efficiently. … Such policies may not only reduce employee pressure to reply to emails after-hours and relieve the exhaustion from stress but will also serve as a signal of organizational caring and support.”

Prof. Becker comments that some companies appear to have already figured this out. He credits Boston Consulting Group for pioneering the guarantee of one email-free evening a week, and cites Northeast Topping, a small healthcare consulting firm in Philadelphia, for prohibiting correspondence after 10 p.m. and on weekends and Huffington Post for a similar policy.

The study’s findings emerge from an analysis of survey responses via email of working adults whom the authors recruited from a business school alumni association and LinkedIn interest groups and who had jobs in a wide variety of industries and organizations. Participants indicated that they spent an average of about eight hours a week doing company-related emails after hours, with greater amounts associated with less ability to detach from work. But the effect of expectations in hampering detachment was much greater.

Expectation impedes detachment most, the professors found, when individuals have strong segmentation preference — that is, strongly wish to keep work and family separate. Although such people are generally more likely to detach from work than those with low preference, insistence on after-hours email availability evidently upsets their ability to do so.

In conclusion, the authors reiterate that “even though high-pressure environments with strong salient norms may appear beneficial for organizations in the short-run … such environments appear to be a double-edged sword. Managers need to be cognizant of the consistent negative impact on individual perceptions and well-being that may prove to be especially onerous over time not only to individuals but also ultimately to organizational functioning.”

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