Workers suffering ‘anticipatory stress’ from emails

by Lauren Acurantes16 Sep 2016
A recent study has found that employees who are expected to respond to after-hours email are suffering from ‘anticipatory stress’. 

The study, authored by Liuba Belkin of Lehigh University, William Becker of Virginia Tech, and Samantha A. Conroy of Colorado State University, is the first to “identify the email-related expectations as a job stressor along with already established factors such as high workload, interpersonal conflicts, physical environment, or time pressure,” reported Science Daily.

What the authors found was that it wasn’t the amount of time spent emailing after work hours that caused exhaustion. Rather, it was the organisational expectation of replying that caused anxiety.

Calling it ‘anticipatory stress’, Belkin described it as “a constant state of anxiety and uncertainty as a result of perceived or anticipated threats … that makes [employees] unable to detach and feel exhausted regardless of the time spent on after-hours email.”

“This suggests that organisational expectations can steal employee resources even when actual time is not required because employees cannot fully separate from work," Belkin said.

The expectation doesn’t have to be explicit or part of written policies. It could be normative standard of behaviour at the company or defined by leaders as acceptable, she explained.

"Thus, if an organisation perpetuates the 'always on' culture it may prevent employees from fully disengaging from work eventually leading to chronic stress," said Belkin.

They detail their findings in the article, Exhausted, but unable to disconnect: The impact of email-related organizational expectations on work-family balance, and urge managers to combat this issue by coming up with programmes that could help employees detach.

One such way, they suggest, is to have email-free workdays or have a rotating schedule on replying to emails after work to help manage work-life balance.

“We believe our findings have implications for organisations, as even though in the short run being ‘always on’ may seem like a good idea because it increases productivity, it can be dangerous in the long-run," Belkin wrote.

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