Why We Need To Ignore Emails After Work

Stop – read on before opening that message from your boss. 

I’m working a standard nine-to-five job, at least on paper. In reality, it’s more a 24/7 job, as I find myself replying to work emails at the strangest of times.

Whether it’s during an ad break, on the train to work, or even when I’m in another country and time zone – formerly called ‘vacation’ – I will tap that envelope icon on my phone. Technically I don’t have to do this, but with emails piling up quicker than dirty laundry, it makes me nervous knowing that if I don’t I’ll have tons of unread emails waiting to greet me in the morning.

So I try to get back to everyone as soon as possible, not least because I can’t stand people who take days to reply to an email that literally requires a one-sentence reply. It’s my own choice, but then again, it’s more a voluntary obligation.

Having smartphones and tablets means we are connected all day, every day. As such, most of us feel the constant need to check if something happened while we were offline, even if it was just for a few minutes, regardless if it’s work-related or not. So extreme is our need to constantly check our phones, it’s spawned its own new-age mental illness; Nomophobia.

Moreover, knowing that replying to our boss’ late-night email will make us look dedicated and hard-working is enough motivation for most of us to do it. Besides, it only takes a few minutes, right?

Well, those few minutes will quickly add up, and it all comes at a cost to our health. Research published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology found checking our emails outside of working hours re-exposes us to workplace stress, which can result in bad sleep and more sick days. In other words, our work-life balance is completely off

This is why French lawmakers are planning to enforce a ‘right to disconnect’, giving employees the legal right to completely switch off after leaving the office. If the law passes, it could go into effect in 2017. This could be the next step in an effort to create fair work environments in France after the country implemented a 35-hour working week back in 2000.

It’s a good idea in theory, but it misses the point that most of us do the extra hours not because our managers force us to, but because it’s become a general expectation to always be available, due to a global communication that ignores time zones and working hours.

Rather than our employers, emails in themselves are the problem, as they’re supposed to be a quick alternative to an actual face-to-face conversation. In reality, however, they have become the preferred means of communication at work for even the most simple questions, like “Want to have lunch?”, and end up consuming more of our time than walking over to a coworker’s desk and asking them directly.

According to a recent UK study, 30 per cent of workers receive more than 50 emails a day, and more than 65 per cent check their emails ’round the clock. That’s at least a couple of hours every day – most likely unpaid – spent just reading and replying to messages.

It’s really up to us to switch off, but it’s not easy in our fast-paced world. I envy my parents for having worked in jobs that had very clear working hours. When they left the office, the only way to communicate with anyone from work would have been via landline, but as far as I know neither my mother nor father ever received a phone call from their bosses after five o’clock.

They worked hard, but when they had time to relax, they actually did. When I relax, I know I will only do it until I see my phone flash, which is usually never longer than 15 minutes.

The only way this is going to change is if we overcome general life FOMO (fear of missing out). A ‘right to disconnect’ might be a good start, but it won’t make a difference to those of us who don’t really mind answering a couple of quick work emails on a Saturday night, even though what we should really be doing is turning off our phones and actually paying attention to what’s on the TV, or, even more controversially, to the people we’re actually spending time with. Hmm… I’ll give it my best shot tonight.

Comment: What do you think will help you achieve a healthy work-life balance?