After-work intrusions are harming workers’ mental health

Researchers in the US, Europe and Australia have confirmed what many workers already knew – after-hours contact from superiors is bad for your stress levels.

Professor Mayowa Babalola from RMIT University was one of the researchers for the study, and he told The New Daily that the pandemic sold us the dream of a flexible work arrangement.

The flexibility meant managers and bosses had more access to their employees, which then led to some intruding on other people’s space, including their time after they clocked off, he said.

Intrusions could include emails late at night or instant messages going off after hours.

Researchers looked at whether after-hours intrusions were leading to stress and depressive moods among employees.

“On days where managers intruded, employees reported high levels of job tension, work stress, and they reported high levels of depressive symptoms,” Professor Babalola said. 

Why should employers care?

Poor mental health doesn’t just mean someone is struggling – it also leads to poor work performance, Professor Babalola said the research showed.

“If organisations ignore this, that means over time the bottom line of the organisation is going to be impacted,” he said.

A good work environment is a sustainable work environment, and bosses doing right by their employees can have a positive impact within a company.

“We all want … a work environment where we feel valued, where we believe that the organisation cares about our wellbeing,” Professor Babalola said.

“And so the ripple effect is that when I feel that the organisation cares about my wellbeing, I’m more likely to go above and beyond [my] job within work hours.”

The Greens are pushing for new fair work protections, with leader Adam Bandt introducing a proposal to amend exisiting laws to give employees the right to disconnect.

If the bill were to pass it would prevent employers contacting their employees outside of work and ensure employees are not required to monitor, read or respond to emails, calls, or any other work-related communication once they have logged off.

It’s also up to companies and businesses to formally and informally introduce policies and procedures, Professor Babalola said.

Establishing when it is acceptable for someone to contact another employee after work hours, like in an emergency, is important, he said.

How to maintain work-life balance

Dr Lena Wang, associate professor at RMIT’s School of Management, said being contacted by work after hours and poor mental health can have a ripple effect in people’s lives.

To overcome the issue of after-work intrusions, Dr Wang says leaders within a company or business need to be educated and understand poor mental health will lead to poor outcomes.

“They are thinking they’re probably pushing for productivity by engaging in these kind of behaviours that over time is only going to backfire,” she said, adding leaders should try and see things from their employees’ perspective.

As for employees, it’s important they set boundaries for themselves at work, and clearly communicate what they are.

She said having a good work-life balance, even if working 9am to 5pm from home, means having a routine. Those boundaries, like needing downtime after work, should be established with those higher up.

I think anyone might want to just really think about what works best for them and communicate that to their line manager and the clear expectations for both parties,” she said.

She said it should also be acknowledged that sometimes contact after work is necessary but it should be the exception, not the rule.

People can also help minimise other people feeling the need to respond to a work email or message.

Professor Babalola says he puts a line in emails that are sent on weekends explaining he does not expect a response out of office hours.

As for getting an email outside of working hours, he suggests responding the following working day, and gently saying you didn’t respond as you were off the clock.

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