Out-of-hours email bans could be doing workers more harm than good, according to research from the University of Sussex, with the measures reportedly inducing stress rather than easing it. 
Published in the journal Computers in Human Behaviour,  the research broke down the ways in which employees deal with their emails into 72, distinct actions, with workers choosing which actions to take on the basis of their core personality traits and work priorities.
Led by Dr Emma Russell, the study concluded that while blanket bans could help some workers achieve certain goals, they could be particularly difficult for staff with high levels of anxiety and neuroticism. As such, Dr Russell recommends, organisations should personalise their work-email action recommendations according to the different goals that different people value.
She said: “The takeaway for the public from our research is that one-size-fits-all solutions for dealing with work emails are unlikely to work. Despite the best intentions of a solution designed to optimise wellbeing – such as instructing all employees to switch off their emails outside of work hours to avoid being stressed – this policy would be unlikely to be welcomed by employees who prioritise work performance goals, and who would prefer to attend to work outside of hours if it helps them get their tasks completed.”
Russell added: “People need to deal with email in the way that suits their personality and their goal priorities in order to feel like they are adequately managing their workload. When people do this, these actions can become relatively habitual, which is more efficient for their work practices.”
As the University notes, out-of-hours email bans have become a growth area in recent years, enforced not just through workplace policies, but legislation, too. For example:
- Volkswagen has configured its servers to ensure that no emails are sent to employees’ phones between half an hour after the end of each working day and half an hour before the start of the next, with a complete blackout imposed during weekends;
- Daimler switches off employees’ access to emails when they take annual leave;
- Lidl’s bosses in Belgium have banned all internal email traffic from 6pm to 7am;
- meanwhile, France passed a law in 2017 requiring firms with more than 50 staff to establish hours in which employees should neither send, nor answer, emails, and
- earlier this year, New York City mulled proposals to become the first US metropolis to grant workers the ‘Right to Disconnect’ after work.
What does this research say about such solutions – and what does it mean for flexible working?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “The truest form of flexible working – whereby you flex your work schedule to suit other aspects of your life – requires flexibility all round. If you then try to impose restrictions on that framework, such as out-of-hours email bans, you are reducing the autonomy of the individuals concerned. So, as this research shows, it’s more stressful for people not to have access to their emails than it is to have uninterrupted traffic.”
She notes: “This sort of paternalistic approach – ‘We’ll turn off your emails and you won’t be able to speak to anyone outside certain hours’ – erodes that autonomy, and undermines the true spirit of what we mean by flexible working. After all, technology grants us the ability to work remotely and redraw our schedules as we see fit. And one advantage, which obviously depends upon the markets you work in and the customers you’re serving, is that if you’re shutting down at 5pm or 6pm in Europe, that will be the middle of the day in other regions. As such, email bans are a rather curious response to what appears to be a wellbeing issue, but isn’t being thought through – because all they’re really doing is imposing another, domineering ideology in response to the challenge of presenteeism.”
Cooper adds: “This is where it falls to line managers to spot members of staff who may be answering emails around the clock and are perhaps struggling and getting steadily more anxious about the volume of information they’re dealing with. We should want to help and support those people – so it’s about starting individual conversations, rather than enforcing one, big solution that, in the end, will suit very few people.”
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