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Email bans do more harm than good warns study

Businesses that seek to improve staff well-being by restricting access to email outside office hours may be doing more harm than good, warns a new study led by the University of Sussex.

Personality differences as predictors of action goal relationships in work email activity, published in the Computers in Human Behaviour journal, reveals that while a blanket ban on email use outside office hours can help some workers achieve their goals, it can be counter-productive for others, especially those with high levels of anxiety and neuroticism.

Such people, suggests the report, require the ability to control their response to an accumulation of email that can cause stress and feelings of being overloaded with work.

Lead author Dr Emma Russell, a psychologist and senior lecturer in management at the University of Sussex, says that instead of blanket bans on email, organisations should personalise email strategies according to each individual’s particular goals.

For work email, these are typically either to show concern to others, to carry out their work effectively, to preserve their well-being or to have control over their workload.

She said: “One-size-fits-all solutions for dealing with work email are unlikely to work. Despite the best intentions, a solution designed to optimise well-being, such as instructing all employees to switch off their emails outside work hours, is unlikely to be welcomed by employees who prioritise work performance goals and prefer to attend to work outside hours if it helps them complete tasks. People need to deal with email in the way that suits their personality and goal priorities. When people do this, these actions can become relatively habitual, which is more efficient for their work practices.”

The University of Sussex study comes at a time when restrictions on email are becoming more common: Volkswagen configures its servers so that email is only sent to employees’ phones half an hour before/after the start/end of each working day (and not at weekends); Daimler switches off employee access to email during holidays; last year Lidl bosses in Belgium banned all internal email traffic between 6pm and 7am; and in 2017, France passed a law requiring companies with more than 50 employees to establish hours when staff should not send or answer email.

The study can be accessed at https://tinyurl.com/yxhkufhz.

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2018