Q: Should I check work email outside of normal business hours?
A: The availability of smartphones and tablets has made it easy and common to check email anytime, anywhere: 59% of American workers say they use their mobile devices to do work after normal business hours, according to a recent Workplace Options survey.
But that convenience comes at a price. Checking email constantly can lead to burnout and health problems, says Dean Debnam, chief executive officer of Workplace Options, which provides employees with work-life balance support services.
Whether you should check work email regularly depends on your personal preference as well as your company culture, Debnam says. For many, the ability to field email anytime, anywhere is a good thing. It can free you from long hours in the office and enable you to respond quickly to important or urgent issues. You may feel better not having a full inbox when you log on in the a.m. About 80% of workers say using a smart phone, tablet, or laptop to work outside of typical business hours is positive, according to a 2014 Gallup poll.
For some professions, it is just part of the job. Maybe you work with people across different time zones. Or you’re a consultant, lawyer, or salesperson who needs to be available to clients all the time. (A prestigious law firm had to apologize to employees recently when its announcement of a new policy eliminating email overnight and on weekends turned out to be an April Fool’s prank.)
On the downside, constantly being available online translates into more work hours. Though just 36% of workers say they frequently check in outside of regular office hours, those who do log an additional 10 hours of work a week—twice as many hours as those who rarely or only occasionally check email remotely, according to the Gallup survey.
Younger workers and men are more likely to be in constant contact. About 40% of Gen-X and Gen-Y workers check email frequently outside of work vs. one-third of Baby Boomers, and 40% of men vs. 31% of women, according to the Gallup poll.
The more money you make and more education you have, the more likely you are to be among those frequently connected. Employees with a college degree or higher and people who earn more than $120,000 a year are twice as likely to constantly check email than those with lower education levels and salaries below $48,000 a year. That’s a reflection of how prevalent email communication is for higher education and income groups in white collar jobs—or the pressure many workers feel to respond immediately.
There’s lots of evidence that that kind of connectivity is bad for your health, your psyche, and your productivity.
First, it can seriously intrude on your personal life. A survey of 1,000 workers by Good Technology, a mobile-software firm, found that 68% of people checked work email before 8 a.m., 50% checked it while in bed, 57% do it on family outings, and 38% regularly do at the dinner table.
And your communication might not be as sharp or thoughtful when you’re doing it off-hours. It is hard to be at your best when you’re responding to a work issue late at night or in a non-work setting. “If you check in during a family dinner or with your kids running around in the background, you’re going to be distracted,” says Debnam.
Working around the clock can cause serious health problems too. A piece in Medical Daily cited a recent study in the journal Chronobiology International that found that checking your work email at home, or taking a call from the boss on weekends, could lead to psychological, gastrointestinal, and cardiovascular problems
If you don’t want to be constantly connected, set expectations up front by not getting into the habit of monitoring and responding to email after hours unless there’s an important reason to do so. And if it’s just part of your company culture? Well, then you have to decide whether that’s a company you want to work for, says Debnam.