That’s according to a new study authored by Liuba Belkin of Lehigh University, William Becker of Virginia Tech, and Samantha A. Conroy of Colorado State University.
In fact, it is the first study 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”.
The researchers found that it wasn’t the number of emails or the amount of time spent on them after work hours that caused exhaustion.
It was actually the organisational expectation of replying that caused anxiety.
The researchers labelled it ‘anticipatory stress’ and 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”.
The authors argued that this cultural environment suggests that organisational expectations can steal employee resources even when actual time is not required – simply because employees cannot fully separate from work.
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.
"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.
The authors urge managers to combat this issue by coming up with programs that could help employees detach.
For instance, staff could have email-free workdays or have a rotating schedule on replying to emails after work to help manage work-life balance.
Managers might also directly express their expectations when it comes to emails and other after-hours work, such as limiting them to a certain number of hours or up to certain times.
“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," they concluded.
Typing up that ‘one last email’ is a big job stressor that could lead to an employee’s emotional exhaustion.