A new French law that went into effect at the beginning of the year has sparked an international debate about whether workers should have what the popular press calls a “right to disconnect” from after-hours emails and texts sent by their employers. It is a debate well worth having.

The labor law enacted in France doesn’t actually give workers the “right to disconnect” from company emails, but instead requires larger companies to negotiate rules governing how to handle electronic communications outside business hours.

While people may differ in opinion on whether legislation is the best way to address the issue, I can assure you that the underlying concerns that led to the new law are very real. Employers in the United States would be wise to voluntarily examine their own policies and practices—both formal and informal—and take steps to relieve the tremendous toll currently being exacted on workers due to their inability to disconnect from work, which can be manifested through emotional exhaustion and chronic stress.

Anticipatory Stress and Work-Family Balance

In the past couple of years, I joined forces with my colleagues William Becker of Virginia Tech and Samantha A. Conroy of Colorado State University on several projects that investigate the impact of electronic communication on employee well-being. In a study titled, “Exhausted, But Unable to Disconnect: The Impact of Email-Related Organizational Expectations on Work-Family Balance,” using the data from 297 employees from 11 different industry groups, we found that, on average, people spent eight hours a week—the equivalent of an entire extra workday—responding to emails and texts from their employer after hours. It comes as no surprise that in the “always on” culture in which we live, there is the workday, and then there is the after-workday.

But one of the surprising things we discovered was that—even among those who did not respond after hours themselves—just knowing there is an organizational expectation that employees will respond to email outside normal business hours creates anticipatory stress that negatively affects their perception of work-family balance. Simply put, they cannot mentally disconnect from work.

This is an important issue because we do not have an infinite pool of emotional or cognitive resources, just as we have a limited capacity of physical resources. Almost everyone understands that if you engage in vigorous exercise, you need time to rest and recuperate before exercising again. Otherwise, you hurt. The same is true with emotional and cognitive resources. Research has shown that people are more productive, happier, and healthier when they are able to detach from work—both mentally and physically—and to replenish. Failing to protect your emotional and cognitive resources will eventually lead to burnout.

reading on computer in bed

Communication Is Key

Our study found that two-thirds of the people we surveyed prefer to strictly separate work and family. And for those people, organizational expectations that employees will respond to email outside working hours are especially draining and stressful. On the other hand, we all know people who naturally prefer to blur the line between work and family. They like having the freedom to take time off during the day to do household chores or run errands, and don’t mind making calls or responding to emails and texts at night or over the weekend. But our research found that even they reported emotional exhaustion and low work-family balance. In the end, it gets everyone.

And in the long run, it hurts the organization as well as the employees. That’s why I believe organizational leadership needs to be clear about their expectations in the digital age. As always, there is no substitute for common sense. Before a manager sends an after-hours email, she or he should ask: Is this really urgent? Or can it wait? If no reply is expected until the work week resumes, explicitly say so. That relieves the anxiety, and gives employees the right to disconnect.

There are other solutions. For example, some companies rotate the role of who responds to email during any given week. But the single most important thing organizational leaders can do is let their employees know they care about them. It’s not just about email. Trying to figure out optimal email-related policies, and preferably inviting employee input in creating those policies, does more than helping with email-related stress. It facilitates trust-building and promotes positive organizational culture where employees understand that, yes, you expect them to be productive, but you also want them to spend time with family and friends to replenish their resources when they’re not working.

Communication is key. In our global economy, I don’t believe it is feasible or even possible for many businesses to completely cut off electronic communications outside regular working hours. But it is feasible, possible, and necessary to set clear organizational expectations that free employees from emotional exhaustion and chronic stress.

Participate in Our Follow-Up Study

We are currently conducting a more comprehensive follow-up study that measures numerous psychological variables for a larger group of employees, as well as perceptions regarding work-life balance from spouses or significant others and the impact on productivity as viewed by managers.

If you are currently working more than 30 hours per week, we invite you to help by completing a survey. Please note that at the end of the survey we will also ask you to provide an email address of one or more managers at your company and your significant other (if applicable) in order for them to complete a short (1 page) survey on the same topic. Please note that your participation is voluntary and confidential and that only general findings from the study may be published. The manager will only be told that an employee in their organization is participating in a scientific study of electronic communication, your name or any other identifying information will not be disclosed to the manager(s).

You can access the survey, which should take approximately 15 minutes to complete.

For every complete survey that also includes a complete manager or spouse survey, I will donate $1 to the general fund of Lehigh University. In addition, individuals who complete the survey and have a complete manager or spouse survey will be entered into a drawing for several mini-iPads. Everyone who completes a survey will also have the option of receiving a summary of the study’s findings.

If you have any questions before deciding to participate, you can contact Liuba Belkin at lyb207@lehigh.edu.

Liuba Belkin

Liuba Belkin

Liuba Belkin, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Management at Lehigh Business.