Many American workers have heard that familiar ding just as they sit down to dinner or plop in front of the television. A glance at their smartphone shows a preview of a work-related message. A co-worker has a “quick question” or is “just circling back” to an earlier discussion.
Technically, the worker is off the clock and not required to respond. But people admit to engaging in email during their off time. Twenty-eight percent of American workers said they check their work email “extremely often” or “often” during their off hours, according to a 2023 survey by Pew Research. Another 27 percent said they “sometimes” check their email.
For people who check their email after hours, research has found these workers feel the email must be urgent because it was sent outside of normal business hours. Scholars are finding such constant communication is exhausting and risks worker burnout.
Email Response Times
In a 2021 study in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, a research team conducted a series of experiments to test email response times with what they called “email urgency bias.”
Email Urgency Bias
With email urgency bias, the authors suggested that a message recipient would overestimate the importance of an email because it was sent after normal work hours. They assumed if the other person was taking time from their evening or weekend to send the message, then it must be important, and they must expect a timely response.
The authors also expected that workers would feel their performance as an employee would be judged if they didn’t respond in a timely manner. Waiting until Monday might make them seem lazy or uncommitted.
Testing After-Hour Emails
The team conducted eight experiments, primarily using an online service that connected researchers with willing study participants. For most experiments, the service’s filters were set to only retrieve full-time workers in the U.S. Across the studies, the mean participant age ranged from 34.13 to 47.94; the percent with a master’s degree ranged from 24.8 to 86.6 percent.
With each experiment, participants completed a survey in which they were assigned either the role of message sender or receiver. They were asked to imagine various scenarios in which the message was crafted outside of work hours and then indicate how long they thought the sender should have to wait for a response.
The results were as the researchers suspected — receivers felt pressured to respond and their suggested response time was much shorter than the senders. Only when a message was marked as “not urgent” did the receivers offer a suggested response time closer to the senders’.
Such anxiousness to answer had the study’s authors wondering: Why do people overvalue an off-hours email?
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Work Emails and Attitudes
The research team suggested that when a person sends a non-urgent message during their off hours, they have been thinking about a work task and want to tie up the loose end. To them, sending the message is a way to get it off their to-do list and to stop thinking about it. They don’t necessarily want a response; they just want to get it off their mind.
Receivers, in contrast, get an email or text message that delivers an unresolved work item. Responding might feel like a way to tie up that loose end or to acknowledge the message is being addressed.
Other scholars have argued that the American workforce has evolved into a demanding culture in which full-time employees constantly have to perform with a sense of engagement and motivation. This greater psychological burden has been heightened in the past decade with the rise of the gig economy. Full-time workers have become aware that temp or contract workers cost the company less.
Almost every U.S. state allows for nonunion employees to be fired at will. Employers can set expectations for “workers’ mental and emotional habits” and then terminate employees who don’t show the right “...attitudes, motivation, and behavior.”
For some workers, that evening email seems important because the sender took time away from their personal life to send it. Not responding might seem like the recipient lacks a positive attitude or isn’t fully engaged.
Problematically, not being able to break from work can lead to employee burnout. Some scholars have also argued that feeling forced to communicate on weekends can lower an employee’s intrinsic motivation. They aren’t “circling back” or “touching base” because they care about the task or the performance of the company. They are responding out of obligation, and some are afraid of the consequences if they don’t.
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Mandatory Detachment Policies
Organizational communication scholars have developed recommendations for companies looking to implement “mandatory detachment” policies that designate times when employees can straight up ignore company emails and texts during their off hours.
For some companies, mandatory detachment might mean that all after-hours emails and texts can be ignored until the next business day. One communication channel, such as phone calls, can be the designated way to reach out if there truly is an emergency. For everything else, the sender can expect to wait.
Workplaces can also schedule designated no-contact times. They can rotate evenings and weekends when an employee is not available to answer customer concerns, and another worker is ready to respond if needed.
But, scholars caution, these types of programs won’t be successful unless employers take the time to educate their workforce about burnout and the importance of disconnecting off-hours. Many employees need to know it’s safe to step back during off hours and not worry about being penalized for not responding on a Sunday morning to a meeting request calendar invite.