Is it time to ban out-of-hours emails?

The global pandemic has blurred the lines between home and work for millions of people around the world. Where once there was a clear distinction between being on and off duty, the demands of remote working and ever-presence of smartphones has created an ‘always on’ culture in many organisations. The trend has led to a number organisations in the UK to now call for a ban on out-of-hours emails in order to alleviate pressures on employees mental health. But is this really necessary, or even logistically possible, for the new world of work? We asked four leading experts for their thoughts.

“When we receive emails we sometimes trigger ‘threat brain’ by scaring ourselves. We do this by imagining – and feeling frightened about – what will happen to us if we don’t respond,” says psychologist and author of Being with Others: Curses, spells and scintillation, Nelisha Wickremasinghe. “For those of us who have learned in childhood that our self-worth is dependent on pleasing others, being highly efficient, competent and always coming first, a late night email is likely to trigger threat brain.”

Wickremasinghe goes on to explain “Threat brain says if you don’t respond to this email now you will prove yourself to be unloveable, inadequate and worthless. Often it is the voice of our inner critic that represents our threat brain reaction, and some of us have a very harsh critic dictating to us how we should and shouldn’t be. Our inner critic is trying to do a good job for us by reminding us of how we should be, but it damages us by keeping us in threat brain and  preventing us from being who we actually are.

So, should the risk of ‘threat brain’ change the way we communicate? “I don’t think it is time to ban out of hours emails, but it is time to soften our inner critic and to start being kind to ourselves. Research shows that self-kindness changes the way our brain responds to both real and imagined threat and enables to deal with the work place pressure more effectively.”


What out of hours really means

“The whole issue of “out of hours” work is not as straightforward as one might expect” says remote work expert Chris Dyer. “Managing the total hours of work should be the goal of organizations and leaders, but with more flexible, remote and hybrid work, employees have the option to be on or off throughout the day.”

The pandemic has brought to light how different people manage their time around other commitments. “For some people, taking an hour in the morning with their children could mean giving up an hour in the evening to meet important deadlines, so leaders should allow staff the autonomy to plan their lives and careers,” Dyer continues.

In his new book, Remote Work, Dyer urges leaders to be shining examples: “Encourage staff to refrain from working when they should be off. Despite urgent issues, emergencies and sudden events, we want to make sure that our people are not completely wrecked and the long-term growth of the company depends on their longevity.”

“In order to really make change happen, we need to tackle some of the deep-rooted assumptions that individuals hold, educate people and truly engender behavioural change,” says business psychologist and co-founder of Blacklight Advisory, Dr Ajit Menon. “Legislation alone will not do this. People will always find ways to circumvent legislation or to use a loophole, but we do need to tackle the issue of some managers not respecting the work-life boundaries of their colleagues.”


Cultural issues

In his new book, What Lies Beneath: How Organisations Really Work Dr Menon explores the underlying cultural issues that often cause bigger problems, and he argues that this is also a question of culture: “Merely dictating rules will not have impact. Instead, let’s create the right environment and the right culture within our teams and organisations for this to work. Set clear expectations on working patterns, hold people to account where there are violations, invite feedback and then, most importantly, act on it.”

“Everybody has different working styles so it’s important to acknowledge that out of office emails need to be considered from both the sender and receivers’ point of view,” says human behaviour expert and author of The Hidden Edge: Why Mental Fitness is the Only Advantage That Matters in Business, Jodie Rogers. “We hear leaders say, “I like to work at odd hours so I tell my team to ignore the late night or early hours of my emails” but this is not how people feel when they see emails coming through at erratic hours. We need to think about what works for us and what is the message that we are communicating with our teams? Ask “Do I need to send this at 2:30am?” or utilize the ‘send later’ feature on your email platform.

One thing Rogers recommends is creating an email signature that explains your preference for unconventional hours with the explicit understanding that this communication fits in my life at these hours and you can return my email at a time that bests suits your life.

“Ultimately,” she continues “it’s about helping people be empowered to understand there will always be more work. Self-management and boundaries are essential around email for a healthy and productive team. Email is a form of communication, it’s not the work. We’re getting paid to think, make decisions and creatively problem solve – not sit in our inboxes.”