Science confirms it: Your boss's after-hours expectations might be making you sick.
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Employees who feel obligated to check work email during non-work hours are at risk of emotional exhaustion, according to a study being presented next week at the Academy of Management annual meeting.

What’s more, companies don’t have to formally require workers to check in to create this effect; the expectation can simply be implied by workplace culture. (Tell that to your boss next time she says no one’s “forcing you” to log on from vacation!)

Common causes of job stress, such as high workload and interpersonal conflicts, have been well documented in previous research. But the authors of this new study—from Lehigh, Virginia Tech, and Colorado State universities—say theirs is the first to identify email-related expectations as a job stressor.

Other studies have shown, however, that employees must be able to detach from work—both mentally and physically—in order to restore their resources and avoid burnout. And, of course, it’s no secret that continuous connectivity prevents that kind of detachment from happening.

“Email is notoriously known to be the impediment of the recovery process,” the authors write. “Its accessibility contributes to experience of work overload since it allows employees to engage in work as if they never left the workspace.”

To test this hypothesis, they surveyed nearly 400 working adults in several different industries, including finance and banking, technology, and health care. Participants were asked about how much time they spent on email outside of the office, the expectations of their employers, and other factors.

Surprisingly, the actual amount of time people spent on email didn't affect their emotional exhaustion levels or work-family balance as much as their beliefs about what was expected of them did. For many people, these beliefs created a constant state of anxiety and uncertainty—referred to as “anticipatory stress”—regardless of how often they actually checked in.

Employers should take note of the new research. “If an organization perpetuates the ‘always on’ culture it may prevent employees from fully disengaging from work eventually leading to chronic stress,” Liuba Belkin, associate professor of management at Lehigh’s College of Business and Economics and coauthor of the study, said in a press release.

Plenty of previous research shows that displeasure with work-life balance can also lead to anxiety, depression, absenteeism, and decreased job productivity. “Even though in the short run being ‘always on’ may seem like a good idea because it increases productivity, it can be dangerous in the long-run,” Belkin said.

If banning email after work isn’t a practical option for companies, Belkin suggests that managers implement weekly “email-free days” or institute a rotating schedule for employees to be on-call (or on-email) after hours.

But that’s not all. To really benefit employees, the authors suggest, companies have to truly follow through with these policies—not just say that they exist. In other words, we need to feel secure that our bosses truly value work-family balance, and that it’s okay to unplug for the evening or the weekend.

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