It’s 8 p.m. on a Wednesday, and you just put your children to bed. You are about to spend some quality time with your spouse before going to sleep when your cellphone beeps. It’s an email from a co-worker.
What do you do? Ignore it until the morning? What if it’s urgent and you need to respond right away? But what if it’s unimportant? When is it OK to say the workday is over?
This scenario can happen more than we want to admit in today’s always-on, remote-work society. And it’s taking a toll on employees. A 2018 study published in Academy of Management Proceedings found that the mere expectation that employees monitor email after work hours causes anxiety and is detrimental to their well-being. What’s more, that negative impact extends to the worker’s significant other, as well.
Paul Spangler, who works in Portland, Oregon, formerly as a benefits administrator for Biotronik, a medical device company headquartered in Berlin, says workers today are expected to be as productive and efficient as possible. “For a lot of employees all over the world, we are being pushed to the limit for how much work we can get done,” he says.
But there is a way you can help. Creating an after-hours communication policy, he says, can help prevent employee burnout, reduce turnover and increase employee morale.
So, how can companies implement policies that will help employees feel like they don’t have to respond to emails around the clock?
One approach to implementing an internal communication policy is to start by recommending employees have a personal cellphone and a work cellphone, Spangler says.
“If your personal phone is your work phone…you’re way more likely to be looking at work emails when you really shouldn’t be,” he says.
Spangler says it also starts with training your managers and employees to only get in touch with co-workers after hours if it is an urgent situation that requires an immediate response.
For an urgent matter, make a phone call or send a text message. These can be used as an indicator that the information you need to share is important and requires immediate attention.
“Emails are not necessarily urgent,” Spangler says. “If you do need to get in touch with someone after hours, call them or text because that is going to get their immediate attention. People tend to pay a lot more attention to those.”
If you want to take it a step further, consider setting email access restrictions or using software that gathers and holds all emails drafted after hours and then sends them all out at the start of business the next day.
“These would be some policies I would suggest implementing later if it really became a problem,” Spangler says.
The important thing is to have some kind of after-hours communication policy in place. Once you lay that groundwork, you can adjust it as needed to best serve your team.