Email was supposed to free up time in workplace communications: Send some in lieu of an in-person meeting! Work remotely! Take your time crafting one instead of blurting out something stupid!
But now that everyone is so instantly reachable, work email has slipped its tentacles into our off-the-clock lives, subtly demanding evening responses and extending the workday indefinitely. Now, 52% of Americans check their e-mail before and after work, even when they take a sick day; ignoring email can seem more stressful than dashing off a quick response. But all that continuous connection comes at a cost to our health, finds new research published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.
Larissa Barber, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Northern Illinois University, has a name for this phenomenon: telepressure. It’s the urge to respond immediately to work-related messages, no matter when they come. “It’s like your to-do list is piling up, so you’re cognitively ruminating over these things in the evening and re-exposing yourself to workplace stressors,” Barber says.
This continuous work connection has very real health effects, the study found: employees who reported more telepressure also reported worse sleep, higher levels of burnout and more health-related absences from work. “When people don’t have this recovery time, it switches them into an exhaustion state, so they go to work the next day not being engaged,” Barber says.
Why do we feel this need to reply so fast? Nobody’s forcing us to respond—only 21% of workplaces have policies about communication use outside of work hours, found a 2012 survey from the Society of Human Resource Management. “It’s so new to us, this idea of boundary-less work, that we’re just not sure how to manage it yet,” Barber says.
Barber’s study also looked at whether individual traits predicted who felt telepressured, or if being a type-A overachiever made you more or less susceptible than those with more laidback working habits. Her results revealed that individual differences are only weakly associated—telepressure is a workplace problem, not a worker problem. We learn how to respond to email through our colleagues’ behavior, she found, and it’s a consequence of the social dynamics within a work environment.
“‘As soon as possible’ means different things to different people, but of course if you’re nervous about impressing your boss or coworkers, you probably think it needs to be immediately,” says Barber.
How can you make yourself a little less telestressed? First, think about where your own telepressure is coming from, Barber says. It may be worth having a conversation with your supervisor about email expectations—or, if you’re the boss, try to be a good role model for connectivity and recovery, Barber says.
Changing the conversational nature of your emails also helps. “We’ll talk to people like we’re having those synchronous conversations, face-to-face,” she says. “We’ll send an email and say, ‘Hey, what do you want to do for lunch today?’” Conversational back-and-forth emails like that all but demand an immediate response, partly because it seems rude not to reply. But being explicit about the purpose and timeline of your email really helps. Barber keeps a kind of email office hours, letting her inquirers know what time she’s available to answer messages. She ends her emails to me with phrases like “No need to respond to this message” and “I look forward to hearing from you between 8:30-11:30am tomorrow”—and it does feel pretty satisfying.
But as much as we hate being telepressured, we absolutely love telepressuring others. “We all get kind of used to that immediate gratification of getting fast responses and having those communications that are complete,” Barber says. “We all like it when other people are telepressured, because it helps us complete our tasks faster.” Still, it’s neither sustainable nor good for our health—and it might take an email revolution of a different sort to change things.