Policies that restrict out-of-hours communication can ease the pressure on employees to be ‘always available’, but research shows that a total ban could negatively impact some employees.
Around the world, employees are fighting for better work-life balance and the legal right to disconnect. In Portugal, employers can be fined for emailing or texting their employees after hours. And after successful union negotiations, Victoria Police employees no longer have to respond to work calls or emails after hours, unless it’s an emergency, as HRM previously reported.
All employees have the right to disconnect, yet everyone’s ideal time to switch off and recover is different. A part-time worker will have different needs to someone with caring responsibilities, for example.
Giving employees flexibility in the way they work is important. Not only does it provide a competitive edge for companies amidst ongoing skills shortages, but it also promotes an inclusive and diverse workforce.
However, when it comes to managing out-of-hours communication, research shows that a total ban might do more harm than good.
How it impacts your health
Before we look into the suggestions for managing excessive communication out of hours, it’s worth looking at the impacts it’s having on our health.
For many people, the rise of remote working and workplace apps has amplified the expectation that they can – or should – be available at all hours of the day.
This ‘availability creep’ can negatively impact our physical and psychological health, research by the University of South Australia shows.
“When you’re in a state of hypervigilance all the time awaiting work related communications… this can impact your metabolism and your immunity,” says Dr Amy Zadow, registered Psychologist and Senior Research Fellow at the University of South Australia. “It can create susceptibility to serious health problems such as infection, high blood pressure and even depression.”
Researchers at the University of South Australia surveyed more than 2200 academics and professional staff across 40 Australian universities about their experience with out-of-hours work communication, and found that in 2021:
- 26 per cent of people felt they had to respond to work-related texts, calls and emails from supervisors during their leisure time.
- 57 per cent said they’d sent work-related digital communications to other colleagues in the evenings.
- 50 per cent reported that they’d often receive work-related text calls and emails from colleagues on the weekend.
- 36 per cent reported that it was normal to respond immediately to digital communication in their organisations.
“These are even slightly higher than when the expectation was from a supervisor,” adds Zadow.
Should companies ban out-of-hours communication?
While introducing policies to reduce overworking and the risk of burnout is critical to employee safety and wellbeing, research by The University of Sussex found there’s no ‘one size fits all’ solution.
“Blanket bans do not consider the people for whom flexibility in work time and place is necessary to help them feel in control and get their work done,” says Dr Emma Russell, psychologist and senior lecturer in management at the University of Sussex Business School.
A strict ban on sending emails after-hours may benefit some employees, but it would probably not be welcomed by those who “prefer to attend to work outside of hours if it helps them get their tasks completed,” says Russell.
“‘Out of hours’ is a somewhat old-fashioned concept, as many people no longer work within traditional hours any more. With globalisation, one person’s out of hours will be another person’s in-hours,” says Russell.
“Failing to address workload and work intensification is the real problem, not the actual time of day and the place when people work.” – Dr Emma Russell, Psychologist and Senior Lecturer in Management at the University of Sussex Business School
There have been certain companies that have implemented a blanket ban on out-of-hours communication. Zadow says while this sends a clear message on expectations and gives people clear times to disconnect, it may not have the intended effect for everyone.
“If you take away someone’s control or their autonomy to work the way they prefer to work, this may negatively impact their engagement and potentially their psychological health,” she says.
A symptom of a bigger problem
High levels of out-of-hours communications and messaging between colleagues can be indicative of “a bigger process that’s hiding in the background”, says Zadow.
“If people are messaging all the time out of hours, it’s because they’re worried about productivity or job security. Maybe they don’t have a lot of autonomy or these behaviours are indicative of a low psychosocial safety climate,” she says.
Similarly, Russell suggests it may be a byproduct of workload and work intensification.
“Removing the channel for work at designated times each day does not remove the work itself,” says Russell. “Employers need to ensure they focus on reducing the intensification of work so that people don’t need to work excessive hours when they should be relaxing. Failing to address workload and work intensification is the real problem, not the actual time of day and the place when people work.”
How can employers address the issue?
Many employees don’t have the freedom or authority to dictate when they’re not available.
For example, a casual university tutor whose job is dependent on student evaluations won’t have the power to tell students they’re not available if they’re contacted out-of-hours. Or if a team is up against a deadline and running behind schedule, it can feel difficult or impossible to log off if everyone else is still working.
“At the individual level, you can craft your job to minimise the impact of blurred boundaries [between work and home life],” says Zadow. But the responsibility still lies with the employer to implement clear policies that give everyone in the organisation time to disconnect – whenever this may be.
“It’s important that everyone has periods of time each day when they can switch off and disconnect, but that’s likely to vary for everyone,” says Russell.
“If you take away someone’s control or their autonomy to work the way they prefer to work, this may negatively impact their engagement and potentially their psychological health” – Dr Amy Zadow, registered Psychologist and Senior Research Fellow at the University of South Australia
In order to find an approach that suits an entire team, Zadow says it’s important to hold discussions at all levels of the business.
“Coming into an organisation and saying, ‘These are the rules. This is what we’re doing’ may not be the best approach,” she says. “Consultation, collaboration, negotiation with staff is the key to this.”
Russell adds that it’s important to give people permission to switch off during leisure time – and modelling this behaviour at a leadership level – and being respectful of other people’s communication preferences.
Russell and Zadow share some other tips for addressing out-of-hours communication:
- Consider your organisation’s workload and work intensification. If work is cut off by an out-of-hours communications ban, does workload and expectation of worker output also get limited to the same extent?
- Give people permission to turn off notifications at certain points in the day when they don’t want to be contacted.
- Suggest use of ‘delay send’ functions, so if people need to work unsociable hours their communications aren’t delivered until the appropriate time of day for the recipient.
- Provide training in digital communications etiquette and encourage people to communicate their contact preferences to colleagues and coordinate specific breaks.
- Understand and measure the psychosocial climate of your organisation using resources such as the StressCafe.
- Address always-on constant connectivity cultures. People need time to rest and recover from work each day – whenever and wherever that may be.
How does your organisation address out-of-hours communication? Let us know in the comment section.
UniSA’s work is supported by an Australian Research Council Discovery Grant (DP190100853) (CIs Prof Kurt Lushington, Dr Silvia Pignata and Prof Arnold Bakker) and the Australian Research Council Laureate Fellowship (FL200100025) awarded to Prof Maureen Dollard. Research team members who have contributed to this work include Dr Amy Zadow, Dr Rachael Potter, Dr Ali Afsharian and Amy Parkin.