How often do you send or receive work-related e-mail or texts when you're not at work?
If this sounds familiar, you're not alone. The 2013 Canadian Work, Stress and Health study found that 28 per cent of Canadians who work full-time for an employer frequently check work-related e-mail or text messages after-hours. By comparison, a new Gallup poll finds that 36 per cent of Americans frequently check work e-mail outside of normal working hours.
The proliferation of communication technologies has facilitated the greedy impulses of work – and, apparently, many think this "remote work" is beneficial.
The Gallup poll asked: "As far as you are concerned, is the ability for you to use your computer tablet, or smartphone to work remotely outside of normal business hours and stay in touch with work remotely a positive development or a negative development?" A majority characterized it as favourable. Only 21 per cent explicitly recognized the negatives.
What are the downsides?
In my ongoing study of working Canadians across the country, I've identified three "pressure points" that highlight the pitfalls: role blurring, expectations and control. And there is sound evidence that these have consequences for our health and well-being.
This is the main culprit. Work contact creates permeability in the boundaries between work and other domains – especially family. In qualitative interviews during the past year, we heard Canadians lament how "work creep" has become normative. One male engineering consultant told us how it snatches up what should be leisure time with family (and generates vacation angst):
"I think if you talk to people about it they would say, 'oh no go and enjoy your vacation'– but at the same time you get communication from people asking for things, so there's not a real sort of sincerity to someone saying 'well go away and forget about this place for a while.' "
This underscores the problematic nature of expectations. Many workers described unspoken norms about being "available" or "responsive" – and struggled to navigate unclear expectations.
For some, being responsive after-hours has become part of a job's skill set – an assumed feature of the job description. A female executive assistant reflected on how her clients perceive her: "We'll just e-mail her. She'll e-mail you back right away. She's pretty good about that." What if one isn't "good" with after-hours e-mails? It could be bad for business.
The mixed messages from clients, supervisors or co-workers blends a 'no worries…it can wait' sentiment with the mentality of 'if I'm being contacted after-hours, I need to deal with it now.' This expectations game intensifies work.
A sense of control
Many workers engage in after-hours work contact as a way to 'keep up' with excessive e-mails and overload – to maintain a sense of control. A female secretary told us:
"With smartphones we're all kind of tied to work, right? So I'm always checking my e-mails anyway. I feel that at least I'm prepared if there's something that comes up, I can deal with it and I'm prepared. Like when I wake up in the morning, I pick up my iPad and I open it up and I check e-mails…if you don't keep ahead of it, it gets overwhelming."
This is house cleaning, but not in the traditional sense.
Many see this as an efficient way to deal with excessive work – things that can't be completed during regular hours. A female supply chain manager deals with e-mails after hours to "get a head start on the next day" because the work piles up to such a great degree. She adds: "I do it for my own sanity."
I wonder: If you're filtering work-related e-mails at breakfast or forwarding your supervisor's e-mail to co-workers while in bed, are you missing out on life?
As the male software product manager sees it: "As long as your mind can quickly get back to the basketball game after you've written a five-minute e-mail and it doesn't totally distract you from enjoying it, then I guess that's a good thing." But in those five minutes, you might have missed some amazing shots, or parts of your kids' stories about school, or some quality snuggle time with your partner (or dog).
This is how work gets to us.
From these stories of Canadians' experiences, work contact certainly sounds harmful. But is there any evidence that it affects our health?
One way to evaluate this is to ask people how they perceive work contact as affecting them. From this view, Gallup found that most people see it as beneficial. However, another way to assess the harm is to compare people who experience a lot of work contact with those who experience little.
Our research reveals that those who frequently engage in work contact report more work-family conflict, more distress, and more sleep problems – and these are amplified in the context of long work hours and excessive job pressures.
Does anything help? We found that if you can maintain some degree of autonomy and schedule control, or if your work is engaging and interesting, the problems associated with work contact are minimized. But when the greedy institution tries to get to you, these might be rather big ifs, especially in high-pressured workplaces or precarious economic times.
Dr. Scott Schieman is a Canada Research Chair (Social Contexts of Health) and professor of sociology at the University of Toronto. His research focuses on the causes and health consequences of social stress. You can follow him on Twitter @ScottSchiemanUT