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Expectations for employees to check email after hours can cause burnout, new study finds

August 1, 2016

William Becker teaches at Virginia Tech's National  Capital Region campus.
Managers need to be aware of the negative impact of such expectations on individuals and organizational functioning and enforce practices to help protect their employees, says the study co-authored by William Becker, associate professor of management.

Employer expectations that emails will be monitored and responded to during nonwork hours are the main reason employees are unable to disconnect from the workplace, new research finds.

The emotional stress and exhaustion that may result from such expectations has a negative effect on the individual’s well-being and, ultimately, job performance.

William Becker, a Virginia Tech associate professor of management in the Pamplin College of Business and one of the study’s co-authors, says that just the expectation itself that emails will be tended to “creates anticipatory stress” in employees.

His study notes that “even during the times when there are no actual emails to act upon, the mere norm of availability and the actual anticipation of work create a constant stressor that precludes an employee from work detachment.”

Adds Becker: “Such expectations — whether real or imagined — cause more problems, including burnout and work-life balance problems, than the actual time it takes to read and respond to after-hours emails.”

The study finds that those who are hardest hit by such organizational expectations are employees who fervently wish to keep work and family separate — those with a “strong segmentation preference.”

Over time, however, the study adds, even employees who don’t care as much about the work-personal life separation will find the expectations problematic as well.

“An ‘always on’ culture with high expectations to monitor and respond to emails during nonwork time may prevent employees from ever fully disengaging from work, leading to chronic stress and emotional exhaustion,” the study says.

Their results offer some practical insights to employers.

“Managers need to be cognizant of the consistent negative impact on individual perceptions and well-being that may prove to be especially onerous over time, not only to individuals, but also ultimately to organizational functioning,” the study says.

“Accordingly, managers need to enforce organizational practices that will help to mitigate these negative effects and protect their employees in the long run.”

Becker, whose research interests include work emotion, turnover, organizational neuroscience, and leadership, is based at Virginia Tech’s National Capital Region campus in metro Washington, D.C.

He co-authored the study, to be presented at the Academy of Management annual meeting in Anaheim, California, on August 5-9, with Liuba Y. Belkin, of Lehigh University, and Samantha A. Conroy, of Colorado State University.

The study, the authors noted, is one of the first to show the critical role of email-related expectations in diminishing individual ability to mentally detach from work, through both the anticipatory stress and the actual time spent.

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