As an anxiety-inducing, highly mobile form of work, email sits uncomfortably on the boundary between our professional and personal lives – often finding its way into time and mental space that should be reserved for relaxation. Many companies have responded to this encroachment by banning out-of-hours email outright, but new research suggests this may actually do more harm than good. But why are email bans a bad idea, exactly? And what else can companies do to help their employees control email?
Work email as a vice
Part of the problem with email is that it’s so immediate – when an email lands in our inbox, we feel obliged to reply to it instantly. They’re also not know for being a succinct form of communication, so more often than not they contain complex queries and demands. Even if we skim read them, the issues they contain can divide our attention for hours, so we can’t focus fully on any task.
Then there’s the sheer volume of them: the average employee sends or receives 112 emails per day, with many of these falling into the ‘out of hours’ timeframe. Given the staggeringly annoying tendency many people still have to press “reply all” when there’s no need whatsoever, the time we spend reading irrelevant emails is mad. When this encroaches on our personal lives, and even our wellbeing, it’s madder still.
So, on paper it’s not hard to see why some companies have banned out-of-hours email. It’s also not hard to see why countries like France have even legislated on the subject. But new research suggests email bans aren’t the answer – and in fact, they may do more harm than good to stressed employees.
The problem with email bans
In theory, the motivation for banning out-of-hours emails makes sense: to introduce healthy boundaries and set equal expectations for staff. But in practice, it reflects a seriously outdated, paternalistic approach to management. Telling people they can’t send an email in the evening – even if they feel they have to – removes any sense of self-government. It strips us of our professional autonomy, and suggests we can’t manage ourselves.
Even though blanket bans are designed to improve employee wellbeing, new research by the University of Sussex found they actually have the opposite effect. For people with "high levels of anxiety and neuroticism", it’s important to be able to reply to emails whenever they want. The fear of an ever-growing inbox is very real, and for some people it’s incredibly stressful. Removing a person’s right to respond to emails at their leisure can make them feel even more anxious and overloaded.
Blanket bans also gloss over the incredibly important fact that we’re all individuals. When it comes to people and the way we work, one size definitely doesn’t fit all. Everybody works differently; employees should be trusted to work on their own terms, and create a schedule that fits their productive style and wider commitments.
So introducing any sort of blanket ban that affects someone’s preferred way of working is completely counterintuitive. If responding to an email out-of-hours gives a person a greater sense of control or security, what’s the problem? In the words of Dr Emma Russell, a senior lecturer at the University of Sussex Business School, "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.”
Managing our email habit
So if out-of-hours email bans don’t work, but out-of-hours email still causes stress, what’s the solution?
Ultimately, there isn’t one single approach to email that can be applied to all employees. The crucial thing is that employees are given the autonomy to work how they want – whether that means implementing their own email restrictions or not. As long as they can maintain a healthy work-life balance, staff should be able to choose their own hours based on what works for them.
But just being more aware of how we use email is something we could all benefit from. We all need to be more mindful about our relationships with digital tools — especially the formation of unhealthy attachment. Most of us aren’t conscious of how often we actually check our email, and holding up a mirror to our behavior can help us figure out how to manage it better.
Smart time tracking apps are an easy route to these insights – highlighting where and when we get pulled into email, how long we check our inbox and how long we spend responding. The latter is especially important for making sure any email-related overtime is documented and offset against an employee’s weekly work capacity.