SALT LAKE CITY — Before you open that 8 p.m. email from the office, consider your spouse.
The stress of after-hours communication doesn't just make workers anxious, but also their partners, new research from Virginia Tech says.
And you don't even have to be working from home for the negative effect to kick in. Simply knowing that your boss or co-workers expect you to be available after-hours is enough to induce feelings of worry and tension that could affect the psychological and physical health of you and your partner.
That's the conclusion of William Becker, an associate professor at Virginia Tech's Pamplin College of Business and the lead author of a new study that examined the after-hours practices of 243 couples who work at the school. The research was to be presented at the Academy of Management annual meeting in Chicago this week.
Predictably, workers who were expected to be available even when they weren't in the office felt heightened stress.
But Becker was surprised at two other troubling findings: that workers were largely unaware of how after-hours work demands affected their partner, and the degree to which the intrusion of work into the home affected their relationship.
The relationship quality was poorest when one of the partners reported frequently checking email when not at the office. Sleep quality was also negatively affected, Becker said.
But this doesn't mean that companies or governments need to take draconian action to protect employees from working at night. A few common-sense strategies for both worker and boss can forestall the most negative effects.
The ill effects of always being 'on'
Becker, who holds a Ph.D. in management, said he became interested in the consequences of an always connected workplace because of his wife’s experience with a demanding boss. At a previous job, she was expected to respond to emails sent at all hours of the night, and she ended up leaving the job because of the stress.
In analyzing the experiences of other couples, Becker wrote that the increasing permeability between work and home, enabled by technology, is altering the “ecosystems” of families. The expectation of being reachable at all times is a “common and ominous modern-day job stressor that is detrimental to the employee and the significant other’s health,” the report said.
People who feel pressured to always be “on” report chronic stress and anxiety, which has been associated with poor health and also reduced job performance, decreased satisfaction in work and even an increase in unethical behavior on the job. They feel anxious on two levels — the pressure and problems of their work, and also the sense of not adequately fulfilling their other roles, Becker said.
Stress also arises from our inherent need to conserve finite resources, such as attention, which is why the constant interruption of cell phones and the siren call of social media is detrimental to families.
Illinois State University researcher Brandon T. McDaniel studies how intrusions from technology, which he has dubbed “technoference,” affects familial relationships, and says women reportincreased symptoms of depression and decreased satisfaction with relationships when their partners are constantly on their phones or computers.
The children of the hyper-connected also suffer, McDaniel has found. A study published last year in the journal Child Development suggested an association between misbehaving children and parents frequently interrupted by technology.
More than half of the parents in that study reported being interrupted in their interactions with their children three or more times a day.
Another study has found that after-hours email is consuming up to eight hours — the equivalent of a sixth workday — for some workers, which is why some people are trying to attack the problem with rules and laws.
A state representative in New York earlier this year introduced legislation that would have barred companies from requiring their employees to respond to after-hours communication and protected employees from penalties for not responding. The law, similar to one that took effect last year in France, would apply only to companies with more than 10 employees, and some jobs would be exempt.
It hasn't passed in the city that never sleeps, but in other countries, companies have decided to self-police their reach into their employees' home lives.
In Germany, email to Volkswagen employees isn't delivered after hours and on vacation (though it's waiting for them when they get back, according to Financial Times), and Porscheis among companies considering similar policies.
What are the solutions?
Collin Kartchner, a cinematographer and father of four in Utah, was shocked into scaling back on technology after an exchange with his then-9-year-old daughter, who tearfully asked him, "Dad, why do you love your phone more than me?"
Like many people, Kartchner has a job that doesn't obey 9-to-5 convention, but he points out that children don't distinguish between whether their parents are working or playing when they're on their phones.
“To kids — and to spouses, even — if you have your phone out, it doesn’t matter if you’re using it to make money for the dance class, or even to make money to pay for the house. All you're doing is telling them, this thing I'm holding is more important to me than you are," Kartchner said.
For Kartchner, a quick solution was to buy a flip phone, which he now uses instead of his smartphone when his work day is over. It cuts down on mindless scrolling and makes it more difficult to text, and he tells his clients that he’s scaling back his use of technology in order to be more engaged with his family. “I’ve actually gotten really good response to that,” he said.
Additionally, “In our house, from 5 to 9, after work, we don’t pull our phones out in front of our kids. If I get a text that I have to respond to, I literally hide it. I don’t want my kids to see me pull out my phone,” Kartchner said.
Financial columnist Matthew Lynn has argued that 24-7 technology has been good for families, as it allows parents to work more flexible hours for the benefit of their children.
To that, Becker at Virginia Tech says, “Flexibility from working at home is great, but if you’re never present, even though you’re there, that can cause a problem.”
He suggests parents set clear boundaries, to be mindful and “really engaged,” for at least an hour or two in the evening, at minimum.
But he believes that companies need to be clear about their expectations — sometimes, workers may feel pressure where there is none — and, if necessary, develop policies that ensure everyone isn’t on call all the time. For example, one thing bosses can do is designate one person on a team to be responsible for staying in touch after hours one day a week. “If something really happened, and they needed everyone on deck, that would be an exception,” he said.
But overall, it’s not company rules or municipal laws but the culture of a company that results in a healthy environment, both in the office and at home, Becker said. “The rules aren’t going to trump culture. And I think the organization needs to establish that culture,” he said.
Similarly, parents have to set the culture for the family, Kartchner said.
“All of the issues we’re seeing with kids, they’re just modeling,” he said. “None of it’s on them, it’s all on the adults. If we want to save the kids, we have to save ourselves first.”
McDaniel, at Illinois State, suggests parents establish “tech-free” times and zones. “For example, some families might decide that their dinner time is a tech-free time. Others might decide they will never take their phone into a child’s bedroom.”
Another thing that can help, McDaniel said, is to always look up from your phone or device when you’re talking to a spouse or child. “This shows them that they are the most important thing in that moment, even if you have to tell them that you have to finish what you are working on.”