Being expected to check work email during non-work hours is making employees, as well as their significant others, experience higher levels of anxiety, a study shows.
Researchers from Virginia Tech surveyed 108 employees working at least 30 hours per week, 138 significant others and 105 managers and found that the sheer expectation of monitoring work email, rather than the amount of time spent doing so, led to increased anxiety in both employees and their significant others.
“Some employees admitted to monitoring their work email from every hour to every few minutes, which resulted in higher levels of anxiety and conflict between spouses,” co-author William Becker, an associate professor of management in the Pamplin College of Business, told ABC News.
Significant others also reported decreased relationship satisfaction in contrast to employees themselves, whose satisfaction was not affected by the constant monitoring of work email.
Professor Becker asked, “Are we underestimating the effect this is having on our spouses?”
Both partners also reported negative health impacts from the increased anxiety, which may be explained by the well-established relationship between chronic stress and poor physical and mental health outcomes.
“Anxiety can manifest in several ways, including changes in appetite, concentration, focus and decreased quality of sleep. It makes people less productive in their work and home lives,” Dr. Lama Bazzi, who is part of the American Psychiatric Association Board of Directors, told ABC News.
This study comes months after New York Councilman Rafael Espinal introduced a “Right to Disconnect” Bill, the first of its kind in the U.S. and modeled after a similar legislation in France, which would make it unlawful for private employees in New York to respond to work email after hours.
“When do we un-blur the line between work and our personal lives?” Espinal told ABC News. “I have personally felt the effects of burnout and understood that there was a greater problem going on here.”
The study team suggests a few methods for employers and employees to lessen these negative effects: Manage employer expectations on after-hours email and help employees to engage in mindfulness practices to reduce anxiety, no matter what after-hours expectations are.
“Being able to be in the moment is one of the biggest things we teach people in alleviating anxiety. Remove distractions and focus on the conversations you are having,” Bazzi said.
Professor Becker hopes that the study will encourage leaders to be proactive and have clear policies that allow employees to be engaged and present in their personal lives. He also hopes to shift the onus onto employees to not fall in to the trap of glancing at email after hours.
“Quality of relationships matter, as does being mindful and present,” Becker said. “Turn your phone off, put it away and engage in your real life.”
Richa Kalra, M.D., is a resident physician specializing in psychiatry and working in the ABC News Medical Unit.