• Access to emails outside work hours is ‘toxic’ source of stress for employees

  • 5 Jan 2016
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Research shows valued communications tool is double-edged sword for conscientious staff

Employees checking email outside work hours has been linked to higher levels of stress and pressure.

While personality type affects the degree to which pressure is felt, organisations are being urged to put policies in place to stop employees letting work overspill into home life.

The recommendations are from a report by Future Work Centre, called You've got mail!, which polled 2,000 people across a variety of industries, sectors and job roles.

The report, due to be presented at the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology annual conference in Nottingham this week, found a strong link between ‘push’ email - where email is automatically sent to your inbox – and perceived email pressure. It found 'push' email was used by 49 per cent of respondents.

Of those surveyed, 62 per cent said they leave their emails on all day. Younger people were most likely to leave their email on all day (80 per cent of 15 to 24 year olds) than older people (50 per cent of those aged 55 and over).

Perceived email pressure was found to be highest in IT and marketing, PR, media and internet sectors. Of this group, 30 per cent received more than 50 emails a day and more than 65 per cent said their email was always active.

The study also found checking email before work and at night was associated with higher levels of perceived email pressure, while managers were also found to experience significantly higher levels of perceived email pressure compared to non-managers.

Dr Richard MacKinnon, insight director at the Future Work Centre, said: “Our research shows that email is a double-edged sword. Whilst it can be a valuable communication tool, it’s clear that it’s a source of stress of frustration for many of us.

"The habits we develop, the emotional reactions we have to messages and the unwritten organisational etiquette around email, combine into a toxic source of stress which could be negatively impacting our productivity and wellbeing.”

Newly appointed CIPD president, professor Cary Cooper, said organisations should have policies preventing email access outside of working hours and this should be led by management behaviour. "If a manager sends an email at night to a subordinate or colleague then the message is that we expect you to be available 24/7. The alternative is to close the server down at the weekend and in the evening and there are companies that are doing that," he said.

Cooper added that there were links between perceived pressure of emails and personality, citing that 'Type A personalities' - highly ambitious, driven, time-conscious people - would be likely to be most affected. He warned that besides potentially damaging their own health and affecting their families through poor work-life balance, a business could also suffer if an individual was then off with a stress-related illness.

The Future Work Centre report found a link between personality and perceived stress caused by out of hours email communications. Referring to a measure of personality called the core self-evaluation – which assesses locus of control, neuroticism, self-efficacy, and self-esteem – the report found that people with lower core self-evaluation (less confident people) experience greater interference between work and home than those with higher core self-evaluation (people who think of themselves in a more positive way).

The survey suggested that this may be because those with higher core self-evaluation believe they have more control over their situation and are therefore less impacted by their jobs.

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  • Email isn't the only form of communication that's used within organisations these days and simply turning it off isn't the right solution. We can't make this go away. Giving people control is the key. Let's ensure that those unwritten rules and people's assumptions around communcation (esepcially in hierarchical systems) are surfaced, challenged and redressed. Then let's really support people to take control of their availability and the way they receive communication; that's fast becoming a valuable life skill, not only one that's useful for work!