Checking Work Emails After Hours May Be Damaging Your Mental Health — And Your Relationship

by Natalia Lusinski
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Once you leave your job, is your work for the day done, or do you find yourself constantly checking and returning emails? Well, a new study just revealed that work emails could affect your mental health if you’re still expected to check them when you’re no longer on the clock. And, they’ll not only affect your health, but your partner’s health, as well. The findings were published recently in the Academy of Management Best Paper Proceedings.

If you’re someone who feels obligated to still “work” outside of work, you’re not alone. In the study, 142 people who work full-time were surveyed, and their significant others were, too. They were asked about their jobs’ expectations regarding electronic communication during non-work hours. To see how it affected them, they were also asked about their health and relationship satisfaction. As you can imagine, those who said they feel obligated to check work emails outside of work had a lower sense of well-being and increased anxiety, and it also affected their relationships in negative ways. Employees’ partners who are also online for work during off hours reported the same feelings of a lowered sense of well-being and decreased relationship satisfaction. The study called this a “spillover effect.”

Nicole Wood, CEO and co-founder of Ama La Vida, a career coaching company, believes that some of this additional out-of-office work is due to the popularity of smartphones. “The line drawn between work and life is becoming increasingly blurry as our jobs live on our technology, and we take our devices wherever we go,” she tells Bustle. “Our day used to end when we left the office, but now more of us are in positions where we are constantly ‘on.’” She says that while this can create flexibility — you can often work anywhere, anytime — it can also be detrimental to your well-being, but there are ways to make it a win-win for both you and your boss.

Create Employer-Employee Boundaries

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So, if you have a demanding job where you’re required — or feel required — to work even when outside of the office, there are ways to get a handle on things so that it does not affect you in a negative way. Basically, it seems that it all comes down to employer/employee boundaries. “Organizations could set off-hour email windows and limit use of electronic communications outside of those windows, or set up email schedules when various employees are available to respond,” Liuba Belkin, an associate professor of management at Lehigh University and one of the study’s co-authors, told TIME in an email. “The basic idea would be to create clear boundaries for employees.”

Jill Whitney, licensed marriage and family therapist at Green Tree Professional Counseling and creator of the relationships and sexuality blog, agrees. “It’s helpful to clarify what your boss actually expects,” she tells Bustle. “Some companies actually do expect almost constant availability for emails, but at other jobs, it’s a preference, not a requirement.” She also says to ask yourself: Are you demanding more of yourself than your boss actually expects? Does everyone in your department really respond to work emails at all hours? How do co-workers deal with after-hours work? “I know some bosses who send emails in the evening because that’s the only time they have without interruptions, but they do not expect employees to reply until morning,” Whitney says. “So, don’t assume your boss wants an immediate reply.”

She also says that once you and your boss come to an agreement about whether or not post-work emails can wait — or when you’re expected to respond to them within a certain time frame — you should turn your notifications off. This way, you’ll ensure that you follow the boundaries you’re setting, and you’ll have more time to focus on yourself and/or your significant other, too.

Create Post-Work Boundaries With Your Partner, Too

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OK, so you and your boss talk about their post-work email expectations and yours — perhaps, like Belkin said above, you create a window of post-work time to respond to your boss’ emails. So you do… but then you see that your significant other spends the next hour or two responding to their work emails. Therefore, it’s important to create work boundaries with your partner, too.

“Talk to them about setting limits on work emails,” Whitney says. “Maybe you agree that you have dinner together without devices around, then check emails at one or two defined time slots in the evening.” However, she advises not to let one of those time slots be the last hour before bed since that’s when your brain most needs to be away from a screen and when you and your partner most need to connect. Plus, using electronic devices shortly before bed can cause insomnia, so that’s another reason to resist.

In addition, Whitney says that too many evening emails interfere with relationships, especially with your significant other. “What our closest relationships need most of all is our focused attention — not constantly, of course, but regularly,” she says. “Research shows that having your phone around results in more superficial conversations — since you know you can be interrupted at any time, you tend not to get into deeper conversations.” She says that an interruption from a social media notification is one thing, but it’s even worse if it’s something like an email from your boss that forces you to completely shift gears.

Wood agrees that your partner may become frustrated if you’re constantly on high alert for work-related emails. “Even if your partner is the most important person in the world to you, the moment you’re looking at emails instead of being present with them — particularly during a weekend outing — you are sending the message that work is your priority, even if this is not the case,” Wood says. “We determine what we value with where we spend our energy and time, and to your significant other, when you are constantly ‘on call’ even when you don’t need to be, this sends them a clear signal that work is what you value most.” She adds that you, too, may not fully be able to enjoy your relationship as much as you’d like because you are worrying about work instead of enjoying the moment

Make Time For “Me Time”

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As the study found, respondents reported a lowered sense of well-being and increased anxiety. “When you are always ‘on call,’ that means work is always there lingering in the back of your mind and you can become extremely anxious, always waiting for your phone to buzz,” Wood says. “This can actually perpetuate the situation further because people will check their phones even more frequently to avoid the stress of not knowing if something is going wrong.” She says that even if all is well, simply opening up your work email on your phone can take you out of your current head space of relaxing and enjoying free time so, mentally, you’re back at work.

Wood also says that being on-call 24/7 can significantly decrease your work performance. “The brain is like a battery: When it runs hard and fast, it eventually needs to switch off or recharge; if it doesn’t, then it will eventually burn out,” she says. “Taking time to disconnect is crucial so that you can charge your batteries and return to work with a fresh mind and higher levels of productive and creative energy.”

To resist letting work take over your post-work life, making room for “me time” in your life is critical. Whether you take yourself out on a date or do a self-care activity like take a bath, don’t have your laptop or phone within arm’s reach. “To function well, our brains need different kinds of activity, including sleep and ‘non-productive’ time where we actually absorb and process the information that comes at us all day,” Whitney says. “Stuff needs a chance to perk, and downtime and ‘me time’ is restorative; they help us be more productive when we are at work, and happier and healthier in general.”

As you can see, there’s a fine balance between how much work you permit during after-work hours. “It may be reasonable to be especially available at particular times, such as when you’re close to a deadline on a project,” Whitney says. “But a steady diet of too much work availability, like being on-call 24/7, will drain you.” She says to ask yourself if you’re being paid enough to make the after-hours work worth your while. “If not, it might be time to look into other jobs.”

At the end of the day, it all comes down to communication — communicating your needs and wants, listening to your boss’ needs and wants, and creating a compromise you can both live with that won’t have a negative impact on your out-of-office hours.