Most Employees Check Work E-mail at Home, Study Reveals

HR must consider work/life balance and compensation issues

By Greg Wright March 23, 2017

​Andre Wood, a financial officer for an online education company in Baltimore, checks his work e-mail all hours of the day because sometimes decisions about his company's finances must be made quickly or over the weekend.

He even sleeps with his smartphone under his pillow so he can read work-related e-mails right away.

Not surprisingly, he said, this habit makes it difficult for him to unwind and disconnect from the office when he's at home.

"I think any job where it's 24/7—it affects your social life," said Wood, 49. "The job is always there."

Many Americans share Wood's predicament, according to a new survey of 1,000 people titled America's Relationship with Work E-mail. The survey was conducted by two Chicago-based companies—ReachMail, an e-mail marketing company, and Digital Third Coast, a digital marketing firm.

"Thirty percent have their e-mail open constantly, 54 percent check their e-mail multiple times per day, and just 16 percent check their e-mail once a day or less," the study states.

Seventy-one percent check their work e-mail between 5 a.m. and 9 a.m., and 70 percent check it after 6 p.m., when they say they should be home relaxing, having dinner or watching the evening news.

[SHRM members-only Hours of Work Policy: Nonexempt Employee Electronic Communications]

"I think the way it shakes out is there are certain power e-mail users—there are people that are on e-mails all the time," said Andrew Kerns, a content strategist for Digital Third Coast. "And then what I also expected is that there would be a decent amount of people who have it open all day—it's [almost] one out of three."

Barring E-mail After Hours

The implications for HR professionals are two-fold: What happens if nonexempt employees are accessing work-related electronic communications off the clock and therefore working overtime? And how is an employee's work/life balance affected if he or she is always expected to be tethered to work through smart devices?  

Experts say the issue of work/life balance should raise concern.

It already has in France. On Jan. 1, France enacted a "Right to Disconnect" law. It states that certain employers must establish policies for after-hours e-mail use. It also gives employees the legal right to ignore e-mails outside office hours.

The law resulted from a lengthy debate in France over work/life balance. "Claims by employees of stress, burnout, poor health, and detrimental impacts on personal and family life have been on the increase, exposing employers to liabilities as a consequence of this 24-hour connectedness," SHRM Online reported recently.

The United States does not have such a law. Kerns said at least the French law "gives permission to people to put away the work and the work e-mails."

Achieving Work/Life Zen

There are, however, steps companies can take to ensure employees aren't overwhelmed by constantly checking work e-mail after hours, said Gabby Burlacu, a human capital management researcher at SAP SuccessFactors in Portland, Ore.

For instance, companies can tell employees they aren't expected to keep up with work after hours, and they can refrain from calling employees after hours. They can also encourage workers to better phrase e-mails so those on the receiving end can respond more productively.

"After-hours work e-mails aren't necessarily the problem … inefficient e-mails are," Burlacu said. "Placing a focus on helping staff write better-worded e-mails will allow the receiver to productively respond or carry out the instruction."

Ty Kelley, Ph.D., who is director of academics at Pearson Education/Wall Street English in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, holds classes on sending professional e-mails. She teaches her students to "be clear about anything you want the recipient to do. Remember your e-mail is a reflection of your professionalism and attention to detail," which may alleviate the need for follow up with additional electronic missives.


Greg Wright is a Baltimore-based freelance writer who has covered Congress, consumer electronics and international trade for major news organizations, including Gannett News Service/USA Today, Dow Jones and Knight-Ridder Financial News.

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