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Why the U.S. needs to ban work email after hours

Is it healthy to be tethered to your desk with a smartphone?


Shawn Binder

Internet Culture

Posted on Oct 8, 2014   Updated on May 30, 2021, 11:02 am CDT

When I was living in New York City this past summer working at a media company, two things would keep me awake way past my bedtime: The suffocating summer heat that makes you feel like you’re being wrapped in a hot, wet blanket at all times, and the gentle buzz of my phone announcing that at least fifty emails waited for me by the time I woke up.

The freelance and publishing world is one that rarely sleeps, seeing as most websites operate on a 18-hour work schedule to be inclusive of all time zones of the United States. But being constantly plugged into our work allows little time to creatively recharge, which is why Germany’s proposed solution to change the approach to work emails sounds like a healthy idea for the United States.

The flexible workforce is something that companies have begun adopting as the Internet and technology shift how workers view the longevity of their work week. Workers are no longer living in a working environment where they need to punch in and punch out of their workplace, instead opting for a work schedule that fits their life needs. Around one in three workers are freelancers, thanks in part to the so-called sharing economy, freelance writing, and abuses of the independent contractor system within the technology industry.

In 2006, there were 42 million independent workers creating their own hours and their own incomes through freelance work. With this number growing significantly as technology becomes more prevalent in our society, the question of when should work hours should stop is raised. If freelancers are creating their own schedules, shouldn’t it make sense that their hours should extend well past the six o’clock mark? While the gut response might be “yes,” there should always be boundaries within the workday in order to foster creativity and address mental health concerns.

Three out of four American workers would describe their workplace as “stressful,” which is due, in part, to never being unplugged from their jobs. Workers are able to power down their computers but the moment they step out of their office, their phones act as a tie to their desks. A study recently revealed that “Americans now put in an average of 122 more hours per year than Brits, and 378 hours (nearly 10 weeks!) more than Germans.” No wonder so many Americans are stressed.

According to research commissioned by Andrea Nahles, the German minister for Labour, there is a distinct link between poor mental health and those who have regular access to their work emails. New legislation rumored to be set into motion in 2016 is being drafted to ensure that the hours Germans are allowed access to work-related documents and correspondence will be restricted. Just this past year, France passed legislation that required workers to turn off their work-related smartphones after 6pm. In the face of this possibly growing trend, and in a country where 85 percent of the population is working more than 40 or more hours a week, it would seem like a logical choice to extend similar laws to the United States work force.

Some members of the U.S. workforce are opting for a CWW (or Compressed Work Week) in which they work 9am to 6pm for a two week period, then enjoy every other Friday off in order to relax, unwind, and catch up on their other life obligations. Cornell University spells out some of the benefits of a CWW: “Energy savings for the (company), extended office coverage/customer service periods, alleviation of traffic concerns for employees, the employee’s ability to better manage his/her personal responsibilities, and an additional day off for employees while preserving their full-time income.”

Even with this nine-hour work day in place, laws that forbid employers to bombard their employees with emails after 6pm would not interfere with those who work a compressed work week. Employees would have an additional day to refocus their energies while employers would receive an extra hour a day to smooth over any workplace issues before the 6pm ban rolled around.

Germany’s new laws are following in the footsteps of companies such as Volkswagen and BMW, which “[stop] forwarding emails to staff from company servers half an hour after the end of the working day, while other firms have declared that workers are not expected to check email at weekends or in their free time.” The idea of ending a work day when an employee clocks out should not be revolutionary. Fifty years ago, when workers stepped out of the office, they were unreachable by their employers, able to exist in the dichotomy of who they had to be at work and who they needed to be at home.

When that stress is never relieved and a worker can’t see the end of the work day, it has serious mental health ramifications. According to reports by Fairleigh Dickinson University, 25 percent of the workforce reports home conflicts with their work when workers’ homes involved the raising of small children. In addition to that, 10 percent of the workforce with children under 18 report major conflicts arising from obligations at home interfering with their work obligations. These numbers are being amplified by the phenomenon known as “technostress.”

Technostress is defined as the “negative psychological link between people and the introduction of new technologies.” As technology becomes more ingrained in people’s daily lives and allows them less time away from the their offices, this stress has risen notably, causing roughly 1 million Americans per day to call out of work due to stress related issues.

According to Clemson University, the correlation between technology and stress is that “while technologies have advanced tremendously in their processing power, the ability of individuals to process and digest information hasn’t increased in comparison. The result is increased workloads. And when they are used ineffectively, technologies are also a great source of interruptions that hamper our ability to focus on the tasks at hand.”

For a majority of the U.S. workforce, there seems to be little reason to allow work to seep into all aspects of life. Although the composition of the workforce is changing, with more workers feeling the pressure to leave low-salary full time jobs and supplement with freelance work (around 40 percent of the work force by the year 2020), the reality is that the day to day stress of  jobs across the board is taking a toll on America. By allowing workers’ brains to refuel and experience life outside of their cubicles, companies will see an increase in productivity and creative output.

The Mayo Clinic lists just a few of the common side-effects of stress, including (but not limited to): Restlessness, lack of motivation and focus, and substance abuse. All these factors would seem to indicate to companies that the best way to keep their employees at the top of their game would be to reduce stress in any way possible. By allowing work emails to be sent at all hours of the day, the stressful work environment exists constantly, no longer contained to the walls of an office building.

Countries like Germany and France seem to be listening to the grievances of their workers and understanding that reprieve should not be a luxury for workers. It should be a requirement to keep a workforce physically and mentally happy.

Photo via Thomas Bressen/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Oct 8, 2014, 9:30 am CDT