The impact of the always on culture

Working Late


People who constantly monitor work emails at home think it doesn’t harm their home relationship, but their partners think differently, says a just published US study. 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 who co-authored the paper.

The study found that, regardless of how much time individuals actually spent monitoring and answering work emails outside of work hours, the mere presence of organisational expectations to monitor email outside of work led to employee anxiety and negative effects on well-being, which also affected their partners.

Clarifying expectations

The study recommends mindfulness practices for employees to reduce their anxiety and says employers should reduce or clarify expectations about answering emails outside working hours. As someone who regularly checks work emails of an evening [and on holiday], I recognise that it has a knock-on impact on the family. I just don’t know any other way around it. The reason I do it is mainly because of the nature of the work I do and because of a possibly misguided belief that I am storing up time in the kitty for potential child-related emergencies during the day [which equally applies to taking holiday entitlement].

I’ve got used to this way of working since I’ve had kids – that I basically have to squeeze the most out of every minute of work and never ever fall behind in case something bad happens and I am cast out into a sea of emails and catching up, never to find my way to solid land. It is anxiety-inducing, but it’s a manageable anxiety as opposed to the drowning kind of anxiety and it means that I don’t feel bad about taking time out for school events, etc. It’s a different set of circumstances for someone who is working inflexibly and expected to check emails after hours on top – if flexibility is expected from the employer it needs to be returned and workloads need to be realistic. The impact of absence – physical and mental – on a relationship is hugely damaging and employers do need to create realistic expectations. Having anxious, unhappy employees is not a recipe for productivity or innovation.

An age of anxiety

Anxiety itself is an interesting subject. We live in an age of anxiety. Someone told me recently that it is caused by watching too much news. If kids didn’t watch the news, the person surmised, they would feel less anxious. But children live in the world, not on some saccharine-coated bubble. They go to target-obsessed schools, they access social media, they talk to friends dealing with all sorts of different personal circumstances, often the results of policies and issues discussed on the news, they see their parents being stressed out due to money shortages/working hours etc, they understand the implications for them of Brexit in terms of jobs, their future, increased racism, etc;  in short they are not stupid. If there is one big thing my childhood taught me it is that you should never assume children don’t know what’s going on, even if they don’t have the full picture.

Keeping them from properly sourced information is what some politicians and political operators would love, of course. Anxiety is assuaged not by censorship, but by presenting a realistic, positive vision of the future and giving them the skills to be able to work their way towards it.

*Mum on the run is Mandy Garner, editor of

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