Should we ban after-hours work email?
May 11th, 2014
Sociologist Scott Schieman on the consequences of being always connected to the office
Media worldwide lit up recently with the news that France had banned work-related emails after 6 pm. It turns out there was no such law, but given the level of interest in the story, we decided to speak to U of T’s Scott Schieman, a sociologist who has studied the relationships among work, family, stress and health.
What are your thoughts about the story of France proposing to ban emails after 6 pm?
My understanding is that there wasn’t actually any new piece of legislation. It was more of a labour agreement that was signed by unions and employers in specific sectors. But somehow in some media outlets it became: “France bans emails after 6 pm.”
Even if the facts got twisted, it did seem to touch a nerve—a lot of people were talking about it.
There’s a famous sociologist named Louis Coser who called work a “greedy institution.” But he was talking about that back in the 1970s before all these communications technologies were available. Now it’s a greedy institution that can reach out and get you at anytime—late at night, weekends, and even when you’re supposed to be on “vacation.” Is there any kind of obligation to be checking emails or checking in when you’re not technically supposed to be working? And if you do check in, and you get some sense that there’s an obligatory task that needs to be done, then you’re working from home—and are you being compensated for it? These questions do touch a nerve with people.
It might not even be that a task needs to get done overnight, but that you want to give the impression you’re engaged at work.
Yes. The sociologist Mary Blair-Loy describes a concept called the “work devotion schema.” It draws upon a notion of the ideal worker. The ideal worker is fully committed and doesn’t let other roles—like family—interfere with work. The flip side of this is that in striving to be the ideal worker, people start to internalize being connected as part of their job description, even if it isn’t. The ideal worker norm feels “natural.”
If you’re available 24/7, you’re never really not working. In our research, we’ve been doing interviews with dual income couples with kids under 18. They’ll say, look, there’s only so much time, only so much energy. If you get into this idea of the ideal worker, you have to ask: How does that compete against your devotion to family? And forget about anything else. They report friendships falling by the wayside. They don’t have time for fitness or exercise. When they’re not working, they’re dealing with family-related matters, especially if they’re also caring for aging parents.
Does your work have anything to say about the consequences of being always connected to work?
We’re conducting a large longitudinal national study of Canadians, and we’ve asked them about the frequency of sending and receiving work-related communications outside regular work hours. There is a definite relationship between the frequency of work contact and problems with sleep, including number of hours and quality. We also found feelings of psychological distress, physical symptoms of stress, and in some cases, especially for women, feelings of guilt.
If we have documented these negative outcomes, doesn’t it suggest a need for some kind of intervention, even if it’s not banning emails after 6 pm?
How do you restrain the greedy institution of work? I don’t know about the legislative side of this, if it would even be possible to institute something that would be feasible for all kinds of jobs. But we do know that if you can keep some kind of flexibility or control over the nature of the contact from work, that is a good thing. If you’re experiencing a lot of work contact, some of our research suggests that if it occurs in the context of more autonomous work with more scheduling control and flexibility, and if the work is challenging and interesting, then frequent work contact tends to not hurt as much. That’s something that workers and employers could potentially negotiate a bit more.
Meaning that maybe I don’t mind so much if I have to be on email at night if I can take my kid to a lesson in the middle of the day?
Exactly. More flexibility, clear expectations and clear communication about what those expectations are could buffer against the harm that might be associated with work contact. The other thing is the work itself: if you have more decision latitude, the contact might be less detrimental. If you have to do things on someone else’s terms and it’s more rigid and there’s less control over the work, then it’s more problematic.
U of T sociologist Scott Schieman's work has shown that having to send and receive work communications in the evenings or on vacation has several negative effects, including sleep loss. Photo: brittanysoup via Flickr.