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Staying Digitally Connected to Work After Hours Can Be Distressing

Person looking at their computer late at night in the dark
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Key Takeaways

  • A new survey looked at the impact of employees being expected to connect outside of work hours.
  • People who were expected to respond had a higher likelihood of psychological distress, emotional exhaustion, and physical ailments.
  • This research echoes previous studies that have demonstrated the negative impact of working too much.

Over the past year and a half, workplace boundaries have been all but thrown out the window, with everyone’s main priority being simply to survive. Though working from home has further meshed personal life and jobs, this is far from a pandemic-only issue. Employees at home and in offices experience feeling a need to stay connected after work hours. The impact of this culture of constant connection is detrimental.

The latest demonstration of this comes from a new survey by The Conversation that looked at the physical and mental health impact of digital communication outside of work hours.

The Research

Out of more than 2,200 participants, 21% reported that their supervisors expected them to respond to any work calls, emails, or texts outside of business hours. Compared to people who weren’t expected to respond, those in this group were more likely to feel psychological distress, 70.4% to 45.2%, and emotional exhaustion, 63.5% to 35.2%. Physical ailments, such as back pain and headaches, were also more common in people who felt obligated to respond, 22.1% to 11.5%.

In turn, when asked to rate the psychosocial safety climate (how much it protected their psychological health) of their workplace, 62% rated it “poor.” 

“When employees are expected to stay connected beyond work hours, they remain in a constant state of stress,” says Lindley Cherry, MS, a clinical mental health counselor and consultant at C&C Betterworks. “Without being allowed to return to a relaxed state, employees can experience significant distress leading to tension headaches, back and shoulder pain, memory problems, insomnia, chronic fatigue, depression, and more.”

Expectations from colleagues created almost identical amounts of distress to those from supervisors. These results may be partially attributed to the 30% of participants who reported digitally communicating with coworkers on weekends and expecting a same-day response. Another 55% of people sent work-related emails to colleagues in the evenings.

A work culture that perpetuates logging on after hours can create a negative cycle. “Being expected to stay connected after work hours may make a person feel that others are working long hours as well, and if they do not, they fear being viewed as not working as hard as others,” says Desreen Dudley, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist with Teladoc.

Desreen Dudley, PsyD

Being expected to stay connected after work hours may make a person feel that others are working long hours as well, and if they do not, they fear being viewed as not working as hard as others.

— Desreen Dudley, PsyD

“This feeling of inadequacy when comparing oneself to fellow co-workers is more prone to developing with remote work, given that one isn’t seeing others physically leave the office to end their workday.”

The Conversation’s survey focused on employees at universities in Australia, but this pattern is echoed repeatedly in past research. In a 2016 study, researchers found that the expectation alone of having to answer emails after work hours can lead to burnout and lower work-family balance. 

One study from May 2021 found that people who work more than 55 hours each week are about 35% more likely to have a stroke and 17% more likely to die from ischemic heart disease than those working 35 to 40 hours each week. Stress is a risk factor for both strokes and heart disease. 

Due to the pandemic, remote work is widespread and, as Dudley mentioned, this can cause issues such as assuming your colleagues are working more than they are—and in turn staying logged on longer yourself. She cautions that living and working in the same place can also lead to ineffective time management as your structure disappears, thus making you feel more stressed to complete everything and working longer.

It can also diminish boundaries between work and your personal life and limit the time you have to recharge and enjoy yourself outside of work, adds Dudley. Losing this time for yourself and your loved ones can be detrimental. “Extended time spent on work comes at the cost of cutting corners in your daily lifestyle.

“You may have to compromise on your regular exercise time or meals or downtime to keep up, which will affect your well-being in the long run,” says Rashmi Parmar, MD, a child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist for Community Psychiatry, California's largest outpatient mental health organization. She explains that dealing with this can be especially tricky for people working in small or crowded homes, but that even people commuting to work can struggle to create a balance. 

Tips for Separating Work and Personal Life

Whether you’re working at home indefinitely, heading back to the office soon, or already commuting, it’s never too late to begin creating boundaries between work and your personal life. Here are some expert-approved tips for forming that barrier moving forward.

Approach Your Boss With a Solution 

It would be so nice if your employer could read your mind and know exactly what you need to be happier and more productive in your job. Unfortunately, that’s far from the case. Dudley recommends approaching your boss with what you need, boundaries and all. “Initiating the conversation with the negatives, such as feeling overwhelmed, unhappy, and burned out, can make you appear to be complaining and not invested in seeking a solution,” she says.

Lindley Cherry, MS, LCMHC

Without being allowed to return to a relaxed state, employees can experience significant distress leading to tension headaches, back and shoulder pain, memory problems, insomnia, chronic fatigue, depression, and more.

— Lindley Cherry, MS, LCMHC

Take the time to come up with multiple solutions and be prepared to negotiate. “Work with your manager to agree to a set of expectations that works for you. For example, you might let them know that if there is a true emergency, you can be reached on your phone number, but you won’t be checking emails until the morning,” adds Stephanie Harrison, founder and CEO of The New Happy.

Have a Designated Work Space

It’s perfectly OK if you’ve been working at home for 15-plus months and still don’t have a designated workspace. This dynamic has felt continually temporary, and creating a specific place to work can be daunting. Even if it’s a little nook or a particular chair you always sit in, try picking somewhere you can consistently go to for work—but also can avoid during other hours. Doing this can create a small sense of separation, explains Harrison.

Use a Transition to Start and Stop Work 

“If work and home locations are no longer physically separated, creating a new ‘to-and-from’ work routine is essential to maintaining a healthy work/life balance,” says Cherry. She suggests listening to specific songs only when you start and finish work. This habit will help you recognize that it’s time to switch from one mental space to another. If music isn’t your thing, try another activity you enjoy, such as exercise or listening to a short audiobook or podcast, says Cherry.

Maintain a Routine

No one understands your work performance as well as you. Think about when you are most and least productive, and try to schedule your day around that. By leaning into what works for you, it’s less likely you’ll feel the need to dive into extra tasks after hours. It will also give you time for things you enjoy throughout the day. “It is important to set aside enough time for meals, exercise, relaxation, and sleep so that these areas of your life are not compromised,” says Parmar.

Make Actual Barriers to Working After Hours 

You can tell yourself 100 times to ignore an email, but the second it pops up on your screen, it’s hard to resist checking. With that in mind, try to remove the temptation when possible. “Our phones are extremely enticing, and it can be helpful to do things like remove email from our phones, keep the phone in another room, or turn off notifications,” says Harrison.

What This Means For You

Anyone can come up with a reason to stay connected after work hours. "Some might be doing it in favor of building some goodwill with their boss for an anticipated promotion at work whereas some might be struggling with the 'norm' set by other coworkers who refuse to detach from work," says Parmar. "Whatever be the reason, the pressure to stay connected will slowly take a toll on a person's overall mental and physical wellbeing." Remember to take care of yourself first.

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Article Sources
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  1. The Conversation. Do you answer emails outside work hours? Do you send them? New research shows how dangerous this can be. Published July 12, 2021.

  2. Belkin LY, Becker WJ, Conroy SA. Exhausted, but unable to disconnect: after-hours email, work-family balance and identification. Acad Manag Proc. 2016(1):10353. doi:10.5465/ambpp.2016.10353abstract

  3. Pega F, Náfrádi B, Momen NC, et al. Global, regional, and national burdens of ischemic heart disease and stroke attributable to exposure to long working hours for 194 countries, 2000–2016: A systematic analysis from the WHO/ILO Joint Estimates of the Work-related Burden of Disease and Injury. Environ Int. 2021;154:106595. doi:10.1016/j.envint.2021.106595