Banning out-of-hours emails ‘harmful to some employees’, says study

Blanket policies can negatively affect those who want to work more flexibly

Blanket bans on access to work email outside office hours could potentially be harmful to some employees, and counterproductive to promoting better wellbeing and work-life balance, a new study has suggested. 

The research, published by the University of Sussex, found company policies prohibiting workers using email out of hours could be difficult for those who want to work flexibly, or those with high levels of “anxiety and neuroticism” who feel the need to stay in control of the accumulation of messages.

The researchers said a build-up of work email could cause stress and feelings of being overloaded in some employees. 

Increasingly, UK companies are trying to curb email use outside of work hours to tackle burnout and stress, as well as promote better work-life balance for employees.

But Dr Emma Russell, lead author and senior lecturer in management at the University of Sussex Business School, said that despite best intentions, deploying such strict policies could hinder employees’ progress towards their own targets, and that a ‘one size fits all’ approach should be avoided by employers.

“[Blanket bans] would be unlikely to be welcomed by employees who prioritise work performance goals and who would prefer to attend to work outside of hours if it helps them get their tasks completed,” Russell said.

“People need to deal with email in the way that suits their personality and their goal priorities in order to feel they are adequately managing their workload.”

The CIPD agreed with many of the points in the study, and highlighted that a blanket ban on the use of emails out of hours was not practical or desirable given that many people wanted to work flexibly. 

Rachel Suff, senior policy adviser at the CIPD, told People Management employers instead should provide clear guidance around email use outside working hours to ensure people are doing so only because it suits them. She said: “Employers should also build a culture where staff feel trusted and empowered to find a working pattern that is best for them.”

“Finally, line managers need to have regular conversations with their teams about workload and wellbeing, so action can be taken if people are overworking,” said Suff.

The research suggested employers should instead talk to staff and devise personalised plans according to the needs and goals of individuals within the organisation’s values – be that to work effectively, preserve their wellbeing or have control over their workloads.

Commenting on the research findings, Louise Aston, wellbeing campaign director at Business in the Community, agreed that employers that take a tailored approach to wellbeing will enjoy a greater impact than those taking a ‘one size fits all’ approach. 

“Working parents may prefer to respond to an email after the children are in bed and having restrictions on email could actually add to their stress levels,” Aston said. “There are often many barriers to employees taking up workplace initiatives, and we need to listen to staff to understand what their wellbeing needs are.”

More companies have started to restrict email use outside working hours; German carmaker Volkswagen reported its servers were configured so emails can only be sent to employees' phones from half an hour before the working day begins until half an hour after it ends, and not at all during weekends.

And last year, bosses at supermarket Lidl in Belgium banned all internal email traffic between 6pm and 7am to encourage staff to enjoy time off.  

In France last year, the courts ordered the subsidiary of a British company to pay a former employee £53,000 because it failed to respect his “right to disconnect” from his phone and computer outside office hours – a ruling thought to be the first of its kind since the country legislated for companies with more than 50 employees to establish hours when staff should not send or answer work emails.