Email Burnout

There was a time when the workday was well defined for most employees. We were expected to arrive at our desk at a certain time and when it was time to leave for the day, we simply packed up and headed home. Work was something that was done at the office.

However, advances in technology have drastically altered our approach to our jobs. While the ability to work from anywhere at any time was originally touted as the perfect way to boost productivity and improve work-life flexibility, it seems to have done anything but. Today, workers are reporting record-high stress and burnout caused by the inability to unplug.

In a 2013 study, the Center for Creative Leadership made a startling discovery: Smartphone-carrying executives and professionals spend an average of 13.5 hours per day corresponding with colleagues and clients, in office or electronically. The packed schedules- over 77 hours each week, if you include the 10 hours spent on weekend work – only leave about three hours for family activities or chores. When the researchers asked the respondents what would happen if they stopped checking emails in the evening and on weekends, most said they would likely lose their jobs.

Interestingly enough, the professionals surveyed didn’t identify long working hours as their primary gripe. Instead, it was poor decision-making processes, outdated technology and unnecessary emails – along with the expectation they be read and responded to immediately, no matter the time of day – that caused the most resentment.

A virtual presence seems to be the next best thing to a physical one, and we’re paying dearly. According to research firm Basex, the distraction and lack of focus caused by excess information consumption costs the U.S. economy $900 billion per year. Never mind the health risks – research has drawn solid links between the frequency of work contact and psychological distress.

However, the fallout from non-stop communication can take a toll that reaches further than an employee’s well-being. More and more employers are finding themselves on the receiving end of hefty lawsuits filed by workers demanding overtime pay for their after-hours emailing.

One such class-action lawsuit involves 200 police officers who allege the City of Chicago forced them to check their BlackBerry devices outside working hours with no compensation. Nearly 40,000 bank employees in Canada are involved in two similar suits seeking nearly $900 million in compensation for unpaid overtime. Brazil has passed a law that entitles workers to overtime pay for sending and receiving work-related emails on their personal time.

Even if checking messages isn’t mandated by the employer, many people have a hard time peeling themselves away from their device thanks to our conditioned reflex. Much like how Pavlov’s dogs would salivate at the ring of the bell, the buzz of our smartphone triggers us to take immediate action. This situation is made more complex if a worker isn’t expected to respond to email, but is constantly receiving notes from their boss on evenings and weekends. After all, who doesn’t want to look like a dedicated, hard-working employee?

What Companies Can Do

Some companies have taken drastic steps to limit employee access to email to prevent burnout and protect themselves from liability. For example, Volkswagen shuts down its servers 30 minutes after select employees finish their shifts, preventing them from receiving any email during off-hours. Email service is reactivated 30 minutes before they are scheduled to clock-in the next morning. In France, where a 35-hour work week was introduced in 1999, employers in certain sectors have agreed to cease all employee contact after 6 p.m., whether it be through electronic means or telephone.

Setting solid guidelines around after-hours work and drafting a thorough policy is often the best approach. Be clear as to when employees can and cannot be contacted and make sure all members of the team participate. Don’t hesitate to enforce the rules. However, if a “hands-off” approach isn’t enough, there are solutions to prevent access to emails outside of office hours or during vacation time, including utilizing mobile device management software to control when messages are delivered to handsets.

If you prefer to take matters into your own hands and self-regulate, plugins are available for popular email clients to prioritize messages, combine them into digest form or block their receipt during specific times of the day.

Initially we may be reluctant to unplug from the office, but having a bit of downtime can energize us and boost creativity. One survey found workers who were “always on” – connected to their job at all hours of the day – actually took more sick days and were less satisfied with their careers. Though it can be a difficult mindset to adopt at first, ignoring late-night emails in the short term can lead to greater satisfaction and higher productivity in the long run.

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