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For many, 'flexible work boundaries' become 'work without boundaries'

August 10, 2018

Personal relationships and home life suffer for those tied to their work emails round-the-clock, according to a new study. The study is the first to test the relationship between organizational expectations to monitor work-related electronic communication during non-work hours and the health and relationship satisfaction of employees and their significant others.

In "Killing Me Softly: Electronic Communications Monitoring and Employee and Spouse Well-Being," researchers report that such expectations are "an insidious stressor that not only increases employee anxiety, decreases their relationship satisfaction and has detrimental effects on employee health, but also that it negatively affects partner (significant other) health and marital satisfaction perceptions," said Liuba Belkin, associate professor of management at Lehigh University. Belkin co-authored the article with William Becker of Virginia Tech, Samantha A. Conroy of Colorado State University, and Sarah Tuskey, a Virginia Tech doctoral student.

The research will be presented at the Academy of Management annual meeting, held Aug. 10-14, 2018, in Chicago, Ill. and is published in the Academy of Management Best Paper Proceedings.

Regardless of how much time individuals actually spent monitoring and answering work emails outside of work hours, the mere presence of organizational expectations to monitor email outside of work led to employee anxiety and negative effects on well-being, which also affected their partners (spouses/significant others), Belkin said. "Thus, we demonstrated that these normative expectations for work email monitoring during non-work hours is a significant stressor above and beyond actual workload and time spent on handling it during non-work hours," she said. In addition, the strong negative impact of such organizational expectations was found to not only affect employees, but also their significant others' well-being, demonstrating a "spillover effect," Belkin said.

The research builds upon earlier work by the researchers that examined organizational expectations to monitor email and its effects on employees' ability to detach from work, emotional exhaustion and work-family balance perceptions. That study, "Exhausted, But Unable to Disconnect: The Impact of Email-Related Organizational Expectations on Work-Family Balance," was the first to identify email-related expectations as a job stressor along with already established factors such as high workload, interpersonal conflicts, physical environment or time pressure.

What Can Employers and Individuals Do?

For individuals, mindfulness training has been shown to be an effective approach to reducing anxiety and work-related negative affect and could possibly help with the long-term health and relationship satisfaction effects of electronic communication demands on employees and their partners, the study reports. "Mindfulness is a practice within the control of the employee even if email expectations are not (i.e., those are enforced by their organization or their manager)," Belkin said.

For organizations, policies that reduce expectations to monitor electronic communication outside of work would be ideal. "This may not always be an option due to various industry/job demands," Belkin said. "Nevertheless, organizations could set off-hour email windows and limit use of electronic communications outside of those windows or set up email schedules when various employees are available to respond." The idea would be to create clear boundaries for employees that indicate the times when work role identity enactment is likely to be needed and the times when employees can focus solely on their family role identities. For example, research indicates that when employees are allowed to engage in part-time telecommuting practices, they experience less emotional exhaustion and decreased work-family conflict, Belkin said.

Additionally, organizational expectations should be communicated clearly. If the nature of a job requires email availability, such expectations should be stated formally as a part of job responsibilities. Putting these expectations upfront may not only reduce anxiety and negative emotions, but also increase understanding from significant others by "reframing" work and family boundaries and surrounding expectations around employee work-family time, the study reports.

For the study, researchers recruited 142 sets of full-time employees and their significant others. "Our findings extend literature on work-related electronic communication at the interface of work and non-work and deepen our understanding of the impact of organizational expectations on employees and their families," the study concluded.
-end-


Lehigh University

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