Anyone with a smartphone knows how hard it is to resist checking work-related emails after hours. But it’s more than just a bad habit: Recent research suggests that employees who monitor and respond to work-related messages during non-work times report detachment, burnout, and lower sleep quality than those who resist its siren call.
If that weren’t enough to make you log out of Outlook, new research by William J. Becker and his colleagues at Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business has identified an even more troubling consequence of round-the-clock emailing. They found that this practice could actually harm employees’ romantic relationships, too.
For the study, soon to be published in the “Journal of Management,” Becker and his colleagues surveyed 142 employees and their partners—and found that even the expectation that their bosses wanted them to monitor email after hours had a negative effect on their relationships. “If you’re always thinking about work, you’re still in the work mindset,” Becker says. “Your partner sees that and they don’t feel like you’re present.”
In these strange times, you might be wondering what “non-work hours” even are. “We don’t even know when we’re working or not,” Becker says. So how can you preserve your mental and physical well-being while also keeping your significant other happy? Here are a few tips for hitting “delete” on after-hours emailing:
1. Practice what you preach.
Leaders are often the biggest perpetrators of emailing around the clock—and employees feel pressured to answer those missives. “This is going to have a cost down the road,” says Becker, usually in the form of lower productivity due to anxiety or other health issues. If you’re a manager or other leader, refrain from sending emails after hours and set clear expectations that employees shouldn’t check or respond to them. This helps everyone—including you.
2. Establish expectations.
If your supervisor isn’t showing leadership on this front, you can be proactive and set expectations yourself. Tell them that you plan to be offline after 5:30 p.m. or at another reasonable time, say, until 9 a.m. the next day. “Set clear times and say, ‘OK, I’m going to work during these hours and I’m not going to check email before or after that unless there’s some kind of crisis,’” Becker says.
3. Set an auto-response.
Sometimes it’s not your boss who expects a quick response, but your clients or associates. In his book “The 4-Hour Workweek,” self-help guru and entrepreneur Timothy Ferriss calls email “the single greatest interruption in the modern world.” His solution? Set up an auto-response that reads, “I’ll be checking my email twice a day, once at noon and once at 4 p.m. If you need a reply sooner than that, please call me.” By doing so, you’re telling clients to not expect an instant reply. You’re also telling them that you’re not irresponsibly ignoring your inbox; you’re concentrating on work.
4. Make time for your relationship.
In his research, Becker says, frequent monitoring of email created anxiety for both members of the couple, but particularly the significant other. If you’re compulsively checking your email, take a hard look at this habit and set some limits. For instance, you can tell your partner that you plan to turn off your computer and phone every night after dinner, and ask them to help you enforce it. If your partner is the one obsessed with email, be honest about why it bothers you and explain that you want your evenings to be relaxing and free of work.
5. Embrace mindfulness.
The act of focusing your awareness on the present moment can have enormous benefits for both physical and mental health. It’s also an effective way to reduce work-related anxiety. Practicing mindfulness can involve meditation, but it doesn’t have to. Some people find that yoga, running, or even gardening creates a state of mental calmness. Bring that same approach to time with your significant other. “Really, it’s about directing your thoughts,” Becker says. “You can practice that in your relationship and say, ‘I’m not going to think of work.’”
6. Remove the screens.
If all else fails, try the tactic many parents use for enforcing screen time rules. After 8 p.m., put your phone away—either in a box or in another room—and don’t retrieve it unless there’s an emergency. If your desktop computer is on the kitchen table, hang a dish towel over the screen as a gentle reminder that work time is over. It may seem extreme at first, but once you’re sharing a meal or camped out on the couch doing a crossword puzzle together, you’ll be glad you did it.
Even after the pandemic is over, having these habits engrained will set you up for a healthy balance between work and home life. Bonus for those of you who have children—you will be setting a norm that, with any luck, they will replicate as they get older.