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Checking your emails after work is bad enough if it means you keep looking at your phone in social situations. But checking work messages when you are supposed to be relaxing is what is especially damaging for you. Smartphones have driven many companies to expect their employees to be responsive at all times. This damages productivity in the long term, even if the adrenaline rush at the time of checking makes it feel good.

I keep hearing about various dinner parties where people are asked to leave their mobile phones at the door. Now don’t get me wrong, I think this sounds like a great idea if your gathering is likely to have people checking their email regularly. However (and this might be because I socialise with the wrong people), from what I’ve seen, this isn’t the real issue!

The real issue is with checking emails when you’re not in social situations; when you should be relaxing and unwinding – the “passive looking”, if you will! I think we’ve all been in the position of briefly checking our emails whilst watching a film on the sofa. At the time, it feels strangely good (we’ll get to the rush of adrenaline a bit later on). However, the medium and longer-term effects are quite the opposite. 

As a consultant, one of the biggest “lifestyle” issues I found was an expectation to be responsive to email at all times. Therefore, I wanted to write a quick article on why we shouldn’t check emails outside of work hours, and what we should all do about the urge to be always connected.

Why do people check their email out of work?

The most obvious driver is that people can. Smartphones have allowed us to access our office life in our pocket, whenever we want!

As a result, there is an increased expectation to be responsive. In much, the same way as “face-time” works, responding to an email at 1 am is a way to say to your boss (and peers) that you’re working hard. In consulting, it quickly became commonplace to see long email exchanges that had happened (often over my head) between the time I went to bed and woke up.

The less obvious driver of people checking emails out of work is that it actually feels good. I’ve never studied psychology, and my reading to date has been rather limited on the matter, but my understanding is that each time we check our emails we flip back into “work-mode”, and the stress subconsciously engages our amygdala. The amygdala is what controls our “fight or flight” reaction, and gives us a rush of adrenaline. Whilst this reaction is an incredibly effective response to serious danger (i.e., a lion chasing after you), it’s considerably less good for us when we subject our bodies to the effects over a more sustained period.

Why it’s not very good for us

Continuously high levels of stress mean we can’t really relax: we remain “wired”. This, in turn, means we start to sleep less well, and don’t feel as energised the next day. On top of all this, and perhaps more importantly, we continue to be stressed when we’re spending time with our friends and family, reducing our, and often their, happiness!

It was also timely to read about the longer-term implications of constant stress in this week’s findings from Lancet.  They explain the link between long-term stress and physical conditions such as heart attacks and strokes.

We’re more productive when we don’t look at emails 

In a recent training session at Movemeon, we discussed how we could be more productive. It was interesting to hear how many times the same messages came up: I’m at my most productive when I’m energised, and when I can step back to be strategic in my approach.

As mentioned above, a central tenet for feeling energised was having time to relax. In addition to this, having some time to step back allows us to get some more perspective – subconsciously prioritising what’s important.

We also reflected on how constant email checking results in a reactive mindset: I need to do this because it’s landed in my inbox. This is actually the antithesis of a productive approach, where we are constantly prioritising what we need to do. I certainly find I’m far more effective when I focus on some clear objectives as opposed to trying to clear the never-ending inbox! 

Great, but what can we do about it?

I often hear the challenge that “I have to be responsive” in my job! And in some cases, this is undoubtedly true (i.e., in a deal scenario, or when there are some tight deadlines – do have a look at my article on the myth of the 80-hour work week, if this is happening to you often!). However, I would argue it’s very rare that you need to respond to things prior to the next morning. And for those moments when you do need to be responsive, email is probably not the best way.

In the past few weeks, France has taken some huge steps in stopping the growing trend of checking emails out of work with the right to disconnect. However, this is not the case across Europe, and certainly not in the UK. As such, I think it’s important to set some clear rules, both with yourself and your team:

  •  Rule 1: some “off time”

It’s human nature to search for the adrenaline rush of checking one’s emails. It can also make you feel like you are getting a head start on the day. Either way, we can often convince ourselves of the merit of checking emails while we’re on the sofa.  So to stop, you need to build good habits. Whilst it has taken some doing, I never check my email after 8 pm. Everything else is caught the next day when I’m back in the office, not when I wake up first thing!

  • Rule 2: tell other people

Unfortunately, not everyone follows rule 1 in the world. As such, your boss and team need their expectations managed. If you’re in consulting, you’ll often get the chance in the “project kick-off” meeting. If you’re not in consulting (or don’t have a kick-off meeting), set up some time with your team to discuss these norms.  And for those times when you really need to be responsive out of the office, tell people to call you. This is a far more efficient way of solving many problems and will stop the constant need to check-in on emails.

Some of the great employers movemeon worked with last month:
Rentalcars.com, Amazon, Coca Cola, Jaguar Land Rover & more


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