How the urge to respond to job messages during nonwork hours slowly damages mental health

A study analyzed the ways in which an inability to disengage negatively affects the health and relationship quality of employees and their significant others

According to a study, the need to be constantly connected leads to a specific type of overwhelm known as 'e-anxiety'.pixelfokus.Florian Kuettler (Getty Images/Westend61)

At 8 pm on Sunday, the phone vibrates with an email notification; it’s a message from the boss. You don’t answer it because it’s not urgent, but you can’t get it out of your mind either. “If work is the last thing someone thinks about before going to sleep, something is probably wrong,” explains William Becker, a professor at Virginia Tech University and the co-author of a study on email’s effects on people’s well-being and their immediate environment. He found that the need to be connected to work constantly, even if not intentionally, leads to a specific type of overwhelm – which he calls e-anxiety – that psychologically affects employees and those close to them.

In a study entitled Killing Me Softly: Organizational E-mail Monitoring Expectations’ Impact on Employee and Significant Other Well-Being, the researchers surveyed over 400 employees in different industries and their significant others. They found that excessively monitoring email during non-work hours is detrimental to well-being and relationships. Obsessively checking the inbox is a warning sign, but even thinking about it is harmful because of the expectation of a response, which stems from one’s experiences in the work environment. “Seeing your boss always checking e-mails, knowing that he sends them on weekends or evenings, generates an expectation, so it doesn’t matter what the company policy or law is. If you feel that pressure from your supervisor, that’s going to trump all other things,” Becker explains.

That negative effect is passed on to partners or children when the employee fails to perform personal or family tasks because he or she cannot completely disengage from work. As the author makes clear, small triggers – such as when the family is participating in a leisure activity, but a relative is checking email or thinking about work problems during that time – make it difficult for family members to connect effectively.

Because such disengagement happens repeatedly, family members may become acutely aware of such interruptions or distractions, causing conflict and anxiety. Unlike cases in which an employee copes with work overload by investing their resources to finish a task and then disconnecting from work both physically and mentally, the expectation of an email reply creates a constant demand for attention.

Olga Merino Suárez, the regional prevention coordinator of Fremap, a Spanish Social Security mutual insurance company for occupational accidents and diseases, believes that “improvised” remote work, which began with the pandemic, has increased the levels of anxiety and stress. She adds that when physical connections are lost, people try to maintain links by being available constantly through email or instant messaging. Companies’ increased use of social media further intensifies the difficulty of disconnecting because it assumes that workers always have their cellphones with them, creating the sense that they must respond as quickly as possible. “Instant messaging can be even more detrimental than email because it demands attention more quickly,” says Professor Becker, who collected the data for his study in 2015.

Merino Suárez explains that each worker has the responsibility to seek disconnection in order to reverse the problem. She points that it is more difficult to establish boundaries for work when people have the same habits in their personal lives as well, such as using social media excessively. “The functional reason for anxiety or negative effects is similar in both cases,” she says.

Both experts agree that the speed of responses in the workplace is part of the current culture of immediacy, but there is a solution. “The perception of urgency is not necessarily real and can be controlled,” Merino Suárez suggests. Thus, she argues that people need to learn to distinguish between “what is urgent and what is important,” as well as develop the resources to modulate their behavior, such as choosing a time to respond rationally, reducing their access to apps, and analyzing their demands and expectations of themselves. Likewise, Merino Suárez believes that company leaders must be “the integrating element” of digital disconnection policies. “Essentially, their actions should seek to lead by example, raise awareness and make all members of the team sensitive to it,” she adds.

Becker observes that notifications, alarms, and break notices can be useful, but not if the workers do not learn to respect their limits: “That’s why policies or laws don’t really help. If some people ignore them and…leaders reward those people, in the end it goes directly to punishing the people who [keep those boundaries ...] It may be an unspoken sanction, such as making it difficult to move up the career ladder or not valuing them like others. It’s a way of subverting the laws.” For example, Becker says that the law mandates vacation days, yet in the United States “most people” never use all of them, either because of work overload or to make themselves look better to their superiors.

The negative effects of email and instant messaging may seem minor compared to the exhausting routines, unreasonable demands and unattainable goals that many professionals experience. The obsession with being active all the time is another element of burnout syndrome.

Work absenteeism

A Fremap report, which analyzed 380,000 instances of sick leave using a sample of 3 million people, shows that between 2015 and 2021 the average incidence of temporary disability procedures due to mental and behavioral disorders rose by 17% for all age groups. In 2021, when the impact of Covid-19 was excluded, mental illnesses accounted for 15% of sick leave, the second most common reason, behind only musculoskeletal disorders. In addition to the individual impact of this stress and anxiety, it also weighs heavily on a company’s bottom line. According to the same report, temporary disability procedures cost companies an average of €2,053.36 ($2183.67) in wages and contributions per sick leave in 2021, the same report says.

William Becker explains that one of his study’s purposes was to show companies that it is not in their interest to have overworked workers. “Companies think they get something for free when people work more than they should, but we tried to show that, in the long run, you have to pay a price. If your employees get burned out and have problems in their home life, that will eventually drive them away from the organization,” he concludes.

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