Why I'm Joining The Movement To Stop Answering After-Hours Email

As often as email is proclaimed to be dead, and then not, one thing is for sure: knowledge workers - like me, and probably you -  still have to deal a whole lot of it. Some employees and their employers are starting to push back against the "always-on" mentality, advocating "email-free" after hours. But is this a realistic goal or a fools' errand? 

I struggle with this issue almost every day, so it's encouraging to see more and more people address the problem.

The most recent sighting of this trend was found recently in the Washington Post, which highlighted the experiments of some firms to limit or restrict use of email communications during non-business hours.

So far, the experiments (at least those mentioned by the Post) seem to be improving employees' moods. "At PBD Worldwide, an Atlanta-based shipping company, the mood among workers has been noticeably better since the company adopted a policy of nights- and weekends-free. Work e-mails 'can wait,' said Lisa Williams, vice president of human relations. 'The world isn't going to end.'," the Post reported.

Changing Expectations Of Work

On the surface, the idea that people can put away their work and dedicate their lives to, you know, actually living is a very charming one. But in an age where many people - like me - work from home at least part of time or are constantly connected to the Internet through a smartphone or tablet, it's hard to imagine that this is anything but an exception in a world where the norm remains that workers will respond instantly.

The expectation of the working world is increasingly one of more hours for less pay, and as stressful as handling email after work can be, businesses are still looking at productivity levels that have shot up 254.3% between 1948 and 2011, even as real hourly compensation of production/nonsupervisory workers only grew 113.1% in the same period, according to the Economic Policy Institute. A similar disparity exists between productivity and real median family income.

While there are companies out there that are trying to ease their workers' burden, it's hard not to envision a pushback on a full stop on after-hours communication if there is a real or perceived decline in productivity.

Why Cutting Back Is Hard For Me

It is a trap that many of us can fall into. As a freelance journalist - and college professor - working mostly from home, the trap can be especially difficult to avoid. According to the latest numbers from TeleworkResearchNetwork.com, there are around three million telecommuting workers in the US, some 2.5% of the total workforce. It is not clear if that counts people like me, who own a business of their own that happens to be located in a home office. For such home workers, the balance between work and not-work is always difficult, and email is a big part of the problem. With projects and articles, for instance, it can be easy to walk away for a w while, unless there's some looming deadline. But email (and other communications) can be harder to avoid, since they can and do show up at all hours on my smartphone and tablet devices.

Turning email off is of course possible; part of my work habit is to not check email for long periods of the day while I am writing, to avoid distractions. But even in the evening, the trap is there, because I don't want to miss a note from my West Coast editors or one of my students asking for help.

Some days are better than others, but there is always the small underlying dread that something won't get caught in time. That dread leads to stress and a broader concern about a lack of productivity. 

How Productive Is Email, Really?

But does productivity really decline if email isn't diligently managed? It turns out the reverse may be true.

In a CBS interview in May, Judith Glaser, CEO and founder of Benchmark Communications, revealed the results of a study that indicated that workers who walked away from emails for even as little as five days were more focused and less stressed.

"This does make a difference. Changing how the heart works, changing how the brain works, to become less stressed, gives everybody greater productivity. And this shows up for the boss's benefit," Glaser stated.

Of course, taking such a vacation is not always easy. Glaser mentioned in the same interview that she had to coach one executive who required his employees to respond to all of his emails within seven minutes or else be regarded as a lower-level employee.

The move to cut back, or even dump email altogether, may be a part of a reaction to this larger problem of rising expectations for workers. Even if we cut back on after-hours email, that won't effect real change unless employers moderate their requirements for instant response 24 hours a day. The genie has been let out of the bottle, and it is very common for employers (who know you have a smartphone because they are paying for it) to expect that 24/7 responsiveness. Remote workers feel this pressure, perhaps in an effort to "stay productive" or just "look productive" to justify to their bosses why they should be allowed to not be in the office.

Unless the expectations of "always on" can be reduced to a reasonable level, the intrusiveness of work into our daily lives is never going to end. No matter how much we want it to.

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