Banning employees from emailing outside office hours could do more harm than good to staff wellbeing, according to new research.
The study from the University of Sussex found that while blanket bans could help some workers switch off they could prevent others from progressing.
Researchers warned that strict policies on email could be particularly damaging to employees who suffer from anxiety. It is important for people to be able to control their response to a growing accumulation of emails or they could end up feeling more stressed and overloaded, they said.
Emma Russell, senior lecturer in human resource management at the University of Sussex Business School and lead author of the study, said the findings show that organisations should avoid a "one-size-fits-all" approach to emails.
“The take-away for the public from our research is that ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions for dealing with work email are unlikely to work," she said.
“Despite the best intentions of a solution designed to optimise wellbeing such as instructing all employees to switch off their emails outside of work hours to avoid being stressed, this policy would be unlikely to be welcomed by employees who prioritise work performance goals and who would prefer to attend to work outside of hours if it helps them get their tasks completed."
Russell recommended that organisations personalise rules around email based on different employees' working styles.
“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," she said.
Restrictions on staff emails are becoming increasingly prevalent among firms. Volkswagen was an early adopter, configuring its servers so emails are only sent to employees’ phones half an hour before the start and after the end of the working day and not at all during weekends.
Daimler also introduced a policy that switches off employee access to emails during holidays, while Lidl bosses in Belgium banned all internal email traffic between 6pm and 7am last year to help staff enjoy their time off.
Governments are also taking steps to tackle concerns that employees aren’t switching off from work. France passed a law in 2016 requiring all companies with more than 50 employees to establish hours when staff should not send or answer emails, while New York City discussed proposals to become the first city in the US to grant employees the 'right to disconnect' from work earlier this year.
The University of Sussex paper found that people tend to have one of four goals in mind when they are dealing with work email out of hours – to show concern to others, to achieve their work effectively, to preserve their wellbeing, or to have control over their work.
The study, published in the Computers in Human Behavior journal, also details a comprehensive list of 72 actions that employees regularly perform to manage their work emails.
“In this paper we explored individual differences in the actions that people use to deal with work email, and how different work email actions affect people's goals differently,” said Russell.
“We deal with email differently depending on the goals that we are prioritising, and we tend to prioritise goals that fit with our personality. For example a very agreeable person will prioritise 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.”
Juliet Jain, a senior research fellow at the University of the West of England, told HR magazine the research highlights that employers must remain open-minded about the different ways people work: “Many employees catch up on emails while travelling to or from work in order to free up time for more important tasks during the day. Employers need to acknowledge that work is conducted in many different places, often outside of traditional working hours, and explore the opportunities as well as the disadvantages to employees.”
However, Matt Cole, a post-doctoral research fellow in technology and work the University of Leeds, emphasised the harmful effects of the "always-on" culture that email access permits.
"British workers put in the longest hours of any EU country [...] This is nothing to be proud of," he said.
"Our ‘always-on’ work culture is a major trigger and accelerator to ill health. Research has shown that people who responded to work communications after 9pm had a worse quality of sleep and were less engaged the next day. We may be suffering from anxiety about work expectations even if we don’t check emails in off hours. Research also suggests that the mere expectation of being in contact 24/7 is enough to increase strain for employees and their families."
He added that there needs to be a greater understanding of the underlying causes of work-related stress. "The suggestion that individuals should be able to continue working unpaid out of hours to manage their stress completely fails to understand the source of that stress. This is a collective problem that demands a collective solution. If one or two employees continue to send emails and communicate out of hours this encourages the ‘always-on’ work culture that is the source of the stress itself," he added.
"A right to disconnect would ensure that all employees feel free to not engage in work-related electronic communications. This encourages work/life balance, allowing people to reconnect with their families, friends and community. Article 24 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts the right to rest and leisure, placing explicit limitations on work time. The right to disconnect updates this declaration for the digital age."