Checking emails after work is bad for your partner as well as you

If your other half’s idea of a great night in is to sit on the sofa and check their work emails, the chances are that they are oblivious to how unpopular it makes them.

People who constantly monitored office messages at home felt it did no harm to their closest relationships, but their spouses and partners told a different story, researchers found.

In a survey of full-time workers aged 31 to 40, frequent off-duty email checkers believed their habit caused little strife at home, yet their other halves complained that the behaviour pushed their patience to the limit.

“The employees themselves seem largely unaware of the impact this has on their significant others,” said William Becker, who studies workforce emotions at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. “They don’t see it as a problem, but their spouses say it really affects the relationship.”

Becker set out to explore what happens when people feel obliged to monitor work emails outside their regular office hours. With researchers at Lehigh and Colorado State universities, he found that the expectation to check messages at all hours was enough for employees to report greater anxiety and ill health. Even worse, their partners experienced raised stress levels too.

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In a paper to be presented at the Academy of Management annual meeting in Chicago on Friday, Becker describes what he calls the “insidious downsides” of the always-on society “which may be at least partly to blame for the national epidemic of stress and anxiety”.

While many companies promote what they call flexible working by handing out smartphones and even laptops to their employees, the reality can mean work takes over people’s lives. “The problem with flexibility is we’re unable to turn off,” Becker said.

For the study, the US team recruited full-time workers in areas ranging from government, healthcare and the tech industry to teaching, banking and finance. The researchers then used a series of surveys to learn about the workers’ out-of-hours email-checking habits, their anxiety levels and wellbeing, and how much conflict they had with their partners. Further surveys quizzed workers’ partners and bosses.

Those who checked their emails most, whether male or female, experienced the greatest stress and reported the lowest scores for wellbeing, Becker found. But the impact spilled over to others at home, making partners more stressed too.

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Becker believes that organisations need to do more to help their employees. They could declare a 7pm cut-off time for emails, impose message-free periods, or have rotas that ensure people have evenings off, he said. If managers must send emails at 11pm, they might be encouraged to state that they don’t expect an immediate response.

But there is more employees can do too. People who check their work emails over dinner might ask themselves if the habit is strictly necessary. Another option, said Becker, is to turn to mindfulness, in the hope that it helps people to be fully engaged with their family and friends when they do not have their noses buried in their phones.

“If we drop what we’re doing with our families to check our phones it sends out a message that they’re not as important,” Becker said. “If we don’t address this, it will only get worse and people will start to burn out, leave organisations, and have a lot more relationship problems.”

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