Email has become a vital part of workplace culture.
Today, most Millennials probably don't know what "going to work" would look like without a computer at their desk. Email occupies an enormous portion of that, with workers spending an average 25% of their workday reading and responding to their inbox.
Then there are the after-hours messages, emails sent in the evenings and on weekends. According to Gallup polling, about two-thirds of Americans say that the amount of work they do outside of normal business hours has increased "a little" to "a lot" because of mobile technology. Many, the same survey reveals, are even pleased with this.
They shouldn't be.
Here are ten reasons why an always-on business culture hurts everybody.
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People who respond to emails after hours report working far more than their peers.
According to numerous studies, "always-on" workers spend an average eight to ten hours on work-related e-mails after hours. This is on top of their normal workday or any extended time spent in the office, and it isn't always an individual choice. When your boss is online sending message it's hard not to respond without looking bad.
Email creep takes an increasing amount of time, and as a result the work day now covers all hours. In jobs that once could take 40 or 50 hours a week, people now report working 70 or more. This happens quietly and is difficult to measure, since it's harder to tell how much time people spend working when that includes time spent on their living room couch or on the train.
After-hours email doesn't just affect the time you spend sending messages. It overshadows every minute of the day because an e-mail always could arrive.
In Exhausted But Unable to Disconnect, a study presented at the Academy of Management, three academics found that after hours e-mail creates a culture of stress and emotional exhaustion for workers. They spend their lives not just working on e-mail but worrying about whether one could arrive at any given moment.
"People who feel that they have to respond to emails on their off hours become emotionally exhausted, partially because they can't detach from work," said author Samantha Conroy in an interview with Colorado State University. "They are not able to separate from work when they go home… It's not only that employees are spending a certain amount of extra time answering emails, but it's that they feel they have to be ready to respond and they don't know what the request will be."
People don't just spend more hours working, they spend the rest of their leisure time on call.
All of that extra working time don't come from nowhere. These are the hours that people would otherwise spend going on dates, having dinner with their families, pursuing hobbies and otherwise enjoying their personal lives.
Email pulls them away from all of that.
Almost two-thirds of workers say they check e-mail on vacation, spoiling that sunset view with Microsoft Outlook. Three-quarters of people keep on top of their e-mail over the weekend. Whatever activities they enjoy, switching over to work mode pulls people away from that. They can't engage as completely with families or friends since an e-mail either currently needs answering or might arrive.
Half of workers in one survey said they check their phones in bed, and another 38% "routinely" do so at the dinner table. When they get to work the next day no one will give them time to catch up on that lost sleep.
All-hours email isn't just bad for your mental health, although those effects shouldn't be understated. It's bad for your physical health as well.
One of the most pronounced effects of a smart phone culture is that it can make anyone an on call employee. Work could come knocking at literally any hour of the night or day, except unlike doctors and firefighters you never get a night off. The boss could email on any given Saturday.
This disrupts people's sleep, as work extends late into the night, and causes the exhaustion and stress discussed earlier in this article. All of these have well-known links to physical deterioration.
An always-on culture isn't just bad for employees. It's bad for an organization too. As workers get stressed and overwhelmed by having their job reach into every moment of their lives, burnout becomes an increasingly real problem.
Writing for Harvard Business Review, productivity expert Maura Thomas noted that this kind of constant workload deprives workers of the rest they desperately need to be effective.
"Experiments have shown that to deliver our best at work, we require downtime," she wrote. "Time away produces new ideas and fresh insights. But your employees can never disconnect when they're always reaching for their devices to see if you've emailed. Creativity, inspiration, and motivation are your competitive advantage, but they are also depletable resources that need to be recharged."
This is not a small phenomenon. Industries that have the most connectivity also tend to suffer from the most burnout. Those are talented, valuable people, lost so an e-mail won't have to wait until 9 a.m.
Email is a terrible form of communication. In fact, when taking into account the number we send on a day-to-day basis, it may be the very worst ever invented.
It's a medium virtually guaranteed to spark conflict. In person or over the telephone body language and tone of voice provide critical context to the words exchanged. And a real-time conversation allows you to clear up misunderstandings on the spot. Without any of this, people constantly misread their messages and spiral into an emotional response.
That's even worse after hours.
At 2:00 p.m., you can pick up the phone or walk down the hall to try and clear something up. Not so in the evening, when angry coworkers have the entire night to sit and stew about their grievances. Even worse, they have the opportunity to fire off a response. That's how a memo between colleagues can turn into a YouTube comments section. Nobody wants that.
For the same reason, after-hours emails can amplify professional misunderstandings as well.
It's not just emotional conflict that can be caused by late night e-mails. Professional miscommunications can spiral out of hand as well.
Someone who thinks their boss wants one thing, or an associate who misreads a series of edits; scheduling changes gone wrong, and money that didn't need to be spent; all of these things can happen when someone reads a message wrong. You can receive a document at night and spend hours editing what appeared to be a sloppy mess, only to discover that you'd accidentally opened the first draft version (an incident taken from this writer's professional experience).
During the day colleagues can touch base with each other to make sure they understood the message. At 10:00 pm, that's less likely.
Hourly employees who check e-mail after hours should be getting paid. Frequently, they don't.
Per the Department of Labor, "time spent doing work not requested by the employer, but still allowed, is generally hours worked, since the employer knows or has reason to believe that the employees are continuing to work and the employer is benefitting from the work being done."
In other words, whether or not your boss specifically demands an e-mail at all hours, knowing that you're up and online is enough to constitute working hours.
And all of those salaried employees checking their e-mail while on vacation? They're often owed some of that vacation time back, at least for the hours they spent checking in with the office.
Working is working. Just because you do it from a device instead of a cubicle doesn't change your boss' responsibility to pay for your time.
All-hours email hurts productivity. Sometimes by quite a lot.
This is in addition to the overall effects of burnout and exhaustion that can drag down your workforce overall. Even the work that actually gets done tends to be of a lower quality.
Workers who respond to e-mail after hours are frequently far less engaged than they are in the office. They have more distractions and a shorter attention span to pay to their devices. Instead of sitting down to clear their mind and focus on work they often toss off a response, hoping to get back to what they were doing before being interrupted.
This is terrible for concentration, productivity and results. Almost no one is good at this kind of multitasking, and it can harm results and reduce productivity by up to 40 percent on any given task. Having workers switch in between their lives and their e-mails at all hours is a good way to make sure they deliver halfhearted results to both.
IT experts have a saying, "problem lies between keyboard and chair." It means that, in many cases, a technical problem can actually be blamed on the user. It's a particularly huge problem when it comes to security.
After-hours email exacerbates that.
When people bring their work home they take critical company data off-campus. They can forget their phone at a coffee shop, log onto the company intranet through an unsecured connection, or even just write down their password someplace easy to find. This creates a form of constant broadcast of critical information, and one which the company infrastructure has to support. The network can't be built to shut down off-site access to sensitive files (of which high-level inboxes are certainly a part), because many users will try to legitimately access that information.
A culture which encourages bleed-over between work and home will also work the same way, with employees using their personal e-mail and online services from work computers and mobile devices.
All of this amplifies ongoing security concerns. While hackers pose a threat to any large organization, after-hours email makes it substantially worse.