Blanket out-of-hours email bans do more harm than good

Banning staff from accessing emails outside office hours could harm their wellbeing rather than improve work-life balance, a study from the University of Sussex has claimed.

Employees with “high levels of anxiety and neuroticism” could respond badly to strict policies on email use, the research found, causing stress. It could also stop people achieving work targets.

In 2017, France passed legislation giving workers a “right to disconnect”, requiring employers with 50 or more employees to negotiate parameters with staff on when it was acceptable to be online for work outside of typical hours.

New York City has also discussed proposals to become the first US city to grant employees the “right to disconnect” after work.

Dr Emma Russell, senior lecturer in management at the University of Sussex Business School, said that blanket bans on email could do more harm than good.

Employees facing a “growing accumulation of emails” they were unable to respond to could end up feeling more anxious than before, the research said.

“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,” she said.

“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.”

Ben Wilmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, told BBC News: “Employers need to provide clear guidance on remote working, including on the use of email and other forms of digital communication, to ensure that if people are accessing emails out of hours they are doing so because it suits them.”

A number of employers have introduced restrictions on email usage, including Volkswagen which configures servers so emails are only sent to employees’ phones half an hour before the start and after the end of the working day – and not during weekends.

Daimler also introduced a policy that switches off employee access to emails during holidays, while Lidl bosses in Belgium banned all internal email traffic between 6pm and 7am last year.

Mathias Mikkelsen, CEO and founder of AI-based productivity company Memory, said that outright bans reflected “a remarkably outdated and paternalistic approach to management”. At his company, people are trusted to work on their own terms.

He added: “If responding to an email out-of-hours gives someone a greater sense of control or security, that’s absolutely fine.

“As long as they can maintain a healthy work-life balance, staff should be able to choose their own working hours based on what works best for them.

“We all need to be more mindful about our relationships with digital tools – especially the formation of unhealthy attachment. But repressing a problem is rarely a productive way of solving it.”

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