Why you shouldn't ban out-of-hours emails

Workers are increasingly stressed about work/life balance but prohibition isn't the answer.

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 02 Aug 2016

The death of email has been predicted for a long time but for now it remains the most ubiquitous way of communicating with each other at work. But what was once a revolution in the way we communicate has since become the bane of many a working life. The ease of sending an email means we don’t think twice before doing so for even the most trivial of matters, leaving many feeling all spammed out. Legions of articles dedicated to reaching ‘inbox zero’ pervade the internet and some have even taken the radical decision to log off for good.

Particularly controversial is the use of email outside of office hours. Many an executive heads off on holiday with their Blackberry in tow (or their iPhone now it’s not 2011 anymore...) and everyone has at least one colleague who’ll think nothing of pinging them an email the wrong side of midnight. For all the talk of work-life balance, many of us have become workaholics, unable to disconnect. A study by the Chartered Management Institute published in January suggested the average worker spent more time than they received in annual leave on checking emails when out of the office. 

There are signs of a backlash. In France the government has stepped in, passing a law that compels employers to draw up a ‘charter of good conduct’, setting out the times that employees should send each other emails (not quite the ‘ban’ that was reported by some in the press at the time but nonetheless a bold intervention).

Those who want to see other governments and employers make a stand were given fresh ammunition last week with the publishing of an academic paper into the phenomenon. Researchers at three American universities found that workers were being left ‘emotionally exhausted’ by having to deal with emails all the time. In particular they suggested that it wasn’t so much a question of having vast amounts of emails, but merely anticipating having to deal with emails while off the clock that created ‘anticipatory stress’. Of course you don’t need MT to lecture you on why too much stress can be hazardous to health – and productivity.

Nonetheless a ban outside working hours, or even between say 10pm and 7am, seems like a drastic step. As the world of work becomes increasingly fragmented, with different people on different hours working in different places all collaborating on the same project (as we’re told will be the norm in the future), such a ban will become increasingly unworkable.

The researchers behind last week’s report suggested employers introduce ‘email-free days or specific rotating schedules that will allow employees to manage their work and family time more efficiently.’ But having to consult the weekly chart of email permissions would surely just become another layer of bureaucratic faff that would make people even less productive.

Above all it’s a question of treating people like adults. While you should make it clear to people that they can’t expect a response, or feel compelled to respond, to midnight messages, banning people from working when they feel like it is just going to be a source of irritation.


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