Despite all the other forms of communications available to school leaders and teaching colleagues, e-mail remains one of the most commonly used forms of communicating, often banal, topics across schools, where teachers and school leaders live an invisible line between the roles of the daily jobs and routines undertaken. Yet the impact of receiving e-mails is rarely considered, with recent research demonstrating that receiving out-of-hour work related e-mails negatively impacts on the emotional well-being of employees.
Research conducted by Liuba Belkin of Lehigh University found that receiving “out-of-hours” e-mails led ‘to “burnout” and diminished work-family balance, which is essential for individual health and well-being’.
Interestingly, they found that it is not the amount of time spent on work emails, but the expectation which drives the resulting sense of exhaustion. Due to anticipatory stress–defined as a constant state of anxiety and uncertainty as a result of perceived or anticipated threats, according to research cited in the article–employees are unable to detach and feel exhausted regardless of the time spent on after-hours emails.
According to the study, the expectation does not have to be explicit or conveyed through a formal organisational policy. It can be set by normative standards for behaviour in the organisation. The organisational culture is created through what its leaders and members define as acceptable or unacceptable behaviour.
“Thus, if an organisation perpetuates the ‘always on’ culture it may prevent employees from fully disengaging from work eventually leading to chronic stress,” says Belkin, associate professor of management at Lehigh’s College of Business and Economics and coauthor of the study.
The authors cite previous research correlating the absence of work-family balance to a number of detrimental outcomes – for both the individual and his or her employer:
From the study: “Satisfaction with the balance between work and family domains is important for individual health and well-being, while individual inability to successfully balance roles in those domains can lead to anxiety and depression, lowered satisfaction with both work and family roles, absenteeism, decreased job productivity and organisational commitment and greater turnover.”
“As prior research has shown, if people cannot disconnect from work and recuperate, it leads to burnout, higher turnover, more deviant behaviour, lower productivity, and other undesirable outcomes,” said Belkin.
The results of the study provide insights into what managers can do to mitigate employee chronic stress and emotional exhaustion caused by organisational expectations related to email. We’ve tweaked these for schools, school leaders and teachers per se.
- The authors suggest that if completely banning email after work is not an option, managers could implement weekly “email free days.” – Make it a Friday, Saturday AND Sunday!
- Another idea is to offer rotating after-hours email schedules to help employees manage their work and family time more efficiently.
- Consider the use of other employee communication platforms, such as Slack or Trello to prioritise and categorise messages to staff, trying to ensure these are only sent within school hours, so staff understand the relevance and urgency of these communications.
- Discourage sending e-mails to staff who receive alerts on their SmartPhones, so that e-mails can only be checked when they are in ‘work mode’. Notifications on SmartPhones are difficult to ignore.
- Want to send staff an e-mail at 2 o’clock in the morning, because you cannot sleep because of that important issue? That’s fine, get it off your chest, but save the e-mail as a draft, and consider sending it at a more humane hour of the day. You might actually realise that the important issue is seen differently in the cold light of day. Hopefully, you will also get back to sleep sooner once you have got the issue out of your mind. Just remember to ‘save as draft’! Some e-mail providers even allow you to schedule the time your e-mails are sent, so consider this option as well.
The authors write: “By making descriptive and injunctive norms that emphasise balance between work and non-work domains salient, organisations should potentially decrease the email-related stress.”
The benefits may go beyond employee well-being. The study concluded, “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 organisational caring and support, potentially increasing trust in management, work identification, job commitment and extra-role behaviours.”
The research– to be presented next week at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management–suggests other countries might do well to follow suit from the lead taken by France, for the sake of employee health and productivity.