Do you get work emails sent to your personal phone?

Do you read them when you’re supposed to be resting?

You’re not alone. Millions of us take part in out-of-hours communication with our workplaces. But what we don’t often consider is that it’s basically unpaid work. Reading, thinking about and replying to work communications outside office hours is an energy-sapping burden that stops us relaxing properly.

Is it a necessary part of being employed in the modern world? Or can we do something to push back against this always-on culture?

Who should stay connected?

This problem with this constant connectivity was highlighted by Labour MP Rebecca Long-Bailey during 2019’s December election build-up. Long-Bailey suggested workers be granted the right to ignore work emails outside of working hours, to end our “24/7 working culture” and protect worker’s mental health.

But is this a realistic goal?

When you’re a business owner, it might be hard to avoid. Especially if emails you get are likely to be a new lead from a potential customer. The potential within for new business can be exciting, and you don’t want to leave a prospect waiting too long or they’ll grow disinterested.

Although we recommend going without your phone during downtime, part of being an entrepreneur involves making sacrifices. It’s not a rule - you make the rules! - but being available outside 9-5 hours is not uncommon for founders and managing directors. Whether it’s a sacrifice worth making is yours to decide (and your friends & family may well think otherwise).

What happens when you’re an IT director and a critical system goes down out of hours? People in senior positions with lots of responsibility like this are often paid more partially in return for more availability, and they’d expect to receive emails out of hours that need to be read.

But an employee who doesn’t have that level of responsibility shouldn’t be expected to answer queries when they’re not supposed to be working.

Unpaid overtime and its effects

Let’s call it what it is. It’s not ‘answering a quick email’ - it’s working unpaid overtime. And according to the TUC, more than 5 million UK workers put in a total of 2 billion unpaid working hours in 2018.

It’s particularly widespread in the public sector, with 1 in 4 employees having worked unpaid at some point.

That’s not a healthy state of affairs.

A paper titled “Exhausted But Unable to Disconnect”, published in the Academy of Management, reports that after-hours emails are a real harm to mental health and work-life balance.

“ '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.”

It also suggests that it’s not just time spent reading and responding to emails that does harm - it’s thinking about them too:

“Even during the times when there are no actual emails to act upon, the mere norm of availability and the actual anticipation of work create a constant stressor that precludes an employee from work detachment."

Sounds like a bad way to run a business.

Asymmetric communication

It doesn’t just apply to email. It’s any form of electronic communication, including Slack.

Slack itself has produced a strange sort of asymmetrical communication dynamic, where most participants don’t quite know what the appropriate time to reply should be. Replying instantly seems too much, but is two hours too long to wait?

If you’re responding to non-urgent Slack messages when you’re outside work, something’s gone wrong.

Slack doesn’t really belong on a personal phone - if you’re asked to install it, ask for a work phone and an updated contract stating your availability. It might be a bold move, but it’ll show how serious you are about having your work / home life boundary respected.

Speaking to Wired magazine, Lucas Miller, lecturer at Haas School of Business at Berkeley University, explains:

“With email you know you probably have time to read through a bunch of messages and have a day to respond. Slack is instant and we get a rewarding hit of dopamine every time we respond to someone or someone reaches out to us to let us know a member of our 'work tribe' needs us.

It makes us feel valued and informed, but it also makes us fearful every time an alert comes in that we’ll be out of the loop or ill-informed if we don’t check a message, even though very few truly need our instant attention.”

There’s also the fact that with small chat messages, the notifications will contain some of the message contents - enough to hijack your attention when it pops up and derail your train of thought. Is it worth the interruption?

Maybe it’s time to rethink that constant availability.

Disconnect and forget

So why disconnect in the first place? Well, the evidence for its benefits is there; we need rest if we're to stay healthy and work at our best. The four pillars of effective rest (mental, physical, social and spiritual) are outlined in Why taking time off matters for everyone.

Being able to forget about work for an extended period of time is crucial for preventing anxiety, stress and burnout. It means that you have enough energy and motivation to be productive when you do return to work. And being constantly connected increases the chance of burnout, which can be really difficult to recover from.

One potential habit that could help in this case is email batching; the act of only checking emails twice per day and switching all notifications off. It’s a weirdly scary thing to do if you’re used to checking them first thing in the morning and last thing at night, but it works. It’s a good idea to set expectations when you start this - an auto-responder letting folks know your ‘email hours’ is a good idea.

There might be a bit of a privilege inherent in this - only bosses and owners can do this at will. Employees will likely have to ask for permission, in case the boss wonders why their question hasn’t been answered.

But it might be a good opportunity to suggest the same practice to them. And what manager wouldn’t like a bit less stress?