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Checking Work Emails at Home is Bad for Us. Why Do We Keep Doing It?

Convenience, norms, and disregard for the science keep bad work habits alive.

Key points

  • Research has established that checking work messages outside the bounds of work time can damage well-being.
  • Nevertheless, three of every four U.S. workers say they check work email outside work hours.
  • The convenience of checking in, norms of constant work, and poor application of science are three possible reasons this habit continues.
LinkedIn Sales Navigator/Pexels
Source: LinkedIn Sales Navigator/Pexels

“Greater flexibility in when and where work can be done…can be a double-edged sword. While it can grant people the freedom to craft the [workstyle] that suits their needs, it can also facilitate the encroachment of work onto the nonwork domain with negative consequences for employees’ well-being as well as that of their families.” So concluded the authors of a study published several years before the COVID-19 pandemic (Wepfer et al., 2018).

And this study wasn’t the first. Many others from the past two decades and even earlier yielded similar evidence and clear conclusions: After-hours message checking and other work has been linked to exhaustion, stress, missing work, and job and life dissatisfaction (Allen et al., 2021; Barber & Santuzzi, 2015).

Nevertheless, here we are, still checking emails outside working hours: A recent study indicated that 76% of U.S. workers check their work email outside of work hours. For many types of work, it seems to be the norm to communicate via email or text outside the 9-5. And many leaders still continue to contact their team members outside work hours. Why?

1. Convenience. One reason the bad habit of checking work continues might be its convenience. Technology allows easy access to email and other tools anytime and anywhere. In many jobs, leaders and their teams have taken advantage of this technology, and expanded the expectations of when work should be done. And during the pandemic, many employers went out of their way to give even more workers the technology for remote work. The convenience alone – regardless of the benefits or costs of remote access – is likely a major reason that after-hours email is ubiquitous.

2. Norms and Expectations. In many American jobs there can be an expectation, explicit or unspoken, that workers are available to respond to work matters at any time. Workers might feel this expectation from a manager or sense it in their co-workers. The expectation is reinforced if those who get promoted (and paid more) are those willing to subjugate nonwork areas of their lives to their career. Even if this pattern is unintentional, bosses might come to believe that those who respond to after-hours emails are more dedicated and motivated (via, for example, the availability heuristic).

3. Poor Translation of the Science. In the past decade, the benefits of remote work, working from home, and flexible work have been celebrated. Executives and consultants extolled the benefits of integrating work and nonwork life and the death of the old nine-to-five work schedule. Especially during the pandemic, workers asked for, and employers rolled out, new policies and tools to enable remote work.

Almost entirely absent from these discussions were the potential downsides of that flexibility. If leaders would evaluate these claims against science, and if scientists or journalists could better translate scientific findings to be applied at work, then email policies and expectations might be different.

Change Is Coming

As long as access is convenient, leaders expect workers to be always accessible, and the science is poorly translated to work contexts, after-hours message checking will probably continue. But some of these conditions might already be changing. Discussions of the science are making their way outside academic journals (e.g., this discussion of email habits and this list of downsides of remote work). Employees are increasingly pursuing work conditions that prioritize their preferences and health. The UK is even considering banning after-hours work emails.

After more than 20 years of solid research, the negative consequences of after-hours work messages might finally be influencing our work habits.

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