Attaining a satisfying work-life balance is a dream shared by many employees these days. But the growing permeability of the boundaries that once existed between work and personal or family time makes that dream seem farther away than ever.

Indeed, the notion of “flexible work boundaries” cited as a benefit by many employers too often turns into “work without boundaries.”

In a previous post on the ilLUminate blog, I wrote about a study I co-authored that 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. We also discovered 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 impedes employee ability to mentally detach from work issues that negatively affects their perception of work-life balance.

Along  with my colleagues William Becker of Virginia Tech, Samantha A. Conroy of Colorado State University, and Sarah Tuskey, a Virginia Tech Ph.D. student, I recently conducted a follow-up study that found it’s not just workers who feel anxious and stressed by employers’ expectations that they respond to work emails after hours.

Their spouses and significant others do, too.

In other words, the anxiety and stress employees feel in the “always on” culture of the modern workplace is contagious. And it is harming the mental health and wellbeing of workers and those they love, our study found.

One of the interesting things we discovered is that spouses and significant others suffered the same levels of work-related stress and anxiety as their partners—and, as a result, decreased marital satisfaction and perceptions of overall health—due to demanding organizational expectations of their loved ones.

family sleeping and working

High Expectations Lead to High Anxiety

This time we conducted several studies to explore this phenomenon. First, over a period of several days, using daily surveys, we monitored 108 U.S. adults who worked at least 30 hours a week, on how often they checked work email on nonwork time, the amount of time they spent daily on work email after hours; their levels of email-triggered anxiety; their health; and the quality of their relationship with their spouse/significant other. We also asked them about their employers’ expectations for email monitoring.

Turned out, those who worked for an organization with high expectations for employees to check email after hours indeed monitored their work email frequently outside of work and reported higher levels of anxiety. These daily fluctuations in monitoring and anxiety reduced employee wellbeing and perceptions of relationship quality. And interestingly, even though email monitoring frequency did increase these negative wellbeing outcomes, those outcomes held true even if employees did not spend a lot of time monitoring email during nonwork hours. Reinforcing the findings of our original study, organizational expectations alone seem to be an important driver of worker anxiety.

To further explore the extent of organizational expectations regarding monitoring work email during nonwork hours on employees lives, we conducted another study. Specifically, using a different population of U.S. working adults, we surveyed 138 dyads of employees and their spouses or significant others and obtained surveys from 105 managers from this employee sample to see how actual managerial expectations correlated to what the employees had told us.

Significantly, managers’ views of their employers’ expectations for email monitoring essentially confirmed the results we got from workers. That is, it’s not that employees have the perception that the organizations where they work expect them to be available around the clock. That’s often the reality.

Moreover, we found the same effect in this new sample of employee-spouse/significant other dyads as we saw in the first one. Higher organizational expectations correlated with higher levels of employee anxiety and lower feelings of marital satisfaction and overall health for both employees and their spouses and significant others.  It appears that high levels of anxiety reported by spouses and significant others shines a spotlight on the inherent conflict between a technology that doesn’t recognize any boundary between work and family.

While electronic communication has been a boon for organizations in many ways, revolutionizing how and when we work, it has an insidious ability to infiltrate the lives of workers and, as our study shows, bring the contagion of anxiety and stress into their homes and families.

working after hours at home in bed

A Wake-up Call

There are steps employers can take to minimize work-related anxiety caused by expectations surrounding work emails. Our study, along with numerous others that have raised concerns about the potential downside of electronic communications, should serve as a wake-up call for organizational management.

After all, chronic anxiety and stress eventually take a toll on even the most resilient and productive workers, leading to burnout or serious health issues.

In an ideal world, companies would institute policies that reduce expectations for employees to check email when they’re not working. But in reality, that isn’t always possible. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but at the very least, organizations should have a policy that clearly states its expectations and employees should be fully informed of the policy at the time they’re hired.

Management also should clearly signal to employees that the organization not only understands, but values, the need for workers to have quality time with family and friends. As in most things in life, a little common sense would help as well. For instance, managers who send emails to employees after hours should pause and consider: Do I really need to send this now? Couldn’t it wait until morning or after the weekend? As our study shows, even if an employee doesn’t respond to the email, the mere fact that it was sent is likely to increase anxiety.

If there is a need to monitor email, perhaps management can establish certain off-hours windows and limit communications within those time periods so workers know they have time set aside to truly be with their families. Or management could consider setting up a rotating schedule so that employees are only responsible to check email on certain days.

Implementing not all, but even some, of these procedures will help managers and organizational leaders to clearly signal to their employees that they indeed respect and value their employees’ right to disconnect and have quality personal time with friends and family.

And at the very least, organizational leaders need to recognize the harm that work-related anxiety caused by our “always on” culture is doing to workers. If they want to keep their best employees, they have to find a way to let them rest and recharge their batteries so they can remain productive.

There are also some things within workers’ control to establish a more protective boundary between work and home. For instance, if they do need to monitor work email as part of their job responsibilities, they can decide to be present with their family every evening from the time they get home until 9 p.m., and only check email between 9-10 p.m.

Mindfulness exercises can also relieve anxiety and help employees be present with their loved ones.

We may not be able to return to the days of the Dick Van Dyke Show, when Rob Petrie would come home from his demanding job in television, trip over the ottoman in the living room, and spend the rest of the evening having dinner and spending quality time with his family, neighbors, and friends.

But organizational management can certainly create clear boundaries that tip the scales of work-life balance a little more on the life side, letting employees know when they can focus on their roles at home without anxiously glancing at their smartphone every few minutes.

Liuba Belkin

Liuba Belkin

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