Have you ever felt obliged to respond to work emails at home during the evening and at weekends? You’re not alone.

An increasing number of employers and governments have taken steps to ban the sending of work emails outside of regular office hours. It’s part of an effort to combat work-related stress.

But new research is calling into question some of the assumptions around out-of-hours work.

A source of stress

Let's first look at the arguments in favour of banning out-of-hours emails. A study from Virginia Tech last year found that "the competing demands of work and nonwork lives present a dilemma for employees, which triggers feelings of anxiety and endangers work and personal lives." It’s not simply a problem of being overworked, according to that study: the anxiety can be caused simply by the expectation of being always available.

“The insidious impact of (an) ‘always on’ organizational culture is often unaccounted for or disguised as a benefit – increased convenience, for example, or higher autonomy and control over work-life boundaries," says William Becker, a Virginia Tech associate professor of management who co-authored the study.

“Our research exposes the reality: ‘flexible work boundaries’ often turn into ‘work without boundaries,’ compromising an employee’s and their family’s health and well-being.”

Across the US, around one in five workers would agree with that conclusion, citing work-life balance as their biggest source of stress and anxiety.

Bar chart showing what North American employees cite as their main sources of stress.
Workload is the top cause of employee stress.
Image: Statista

It’s an outlook that has led to a number of changes. In France, since 2017, workers have had the legal right to disconnect from digital devices when not at work. Companies that don’t uphold an employee’s right to log off can be hit with fines.

Car-maker Volkswagen and retailer Lidl have initiated their own internal rules on protecting employees from out-of-hours contact.

Wait, another source of stress

It makes sense that banning employees from emailing outside office hours can help reduce stress. At least, it makes sense in theory.

New research, this time from the UK’s University of Sussex, points out what might be a flaw in the logic.

“This policy would be unlikely to be welcomed by employees who prioritize work performance goals and who would prefer to attend to work outside of hours if it helps them get their tasks completed,” she says.

“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. When people do this, these actions can become relatively habitual, which is more efficient for their work practices.”

Russell, who is also an occupational psychologist, says there are four personality traits that give people different attitudes toward work emails: extraversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness and neuroticism.

And that means a one-size-fits-all approach to work email won’t work.

“For example, a very agreeable person will prioritize goals to show concern to others, which may mean they respond more quickly to work email, or take care over the language and tone they employ when writing.

“Despite the best intentions of a solution designed to optimize well-being such as instructing all employees to switch off their emails outside of work hours to avoid being stressed.”

It may be that not being able to engage in work email can leave some people feeling out of touch, or behind on their progress toward objectives. It also raises a question over the effectiveness of remote and flexible working strategies.

If employees are able to flexibly fit personal life demands around their regular working day, will they be able to catch up during evenings and weekends? If not, those workers may be prone to stress and anxiety driven by the very thing intended to reduce their stress and anxiety.