There's an epidemic no one talks much about because it's rarely seen that way. Even so, it makes no distinctions from one industry to the next; I've seen this bad habit infect the ranks of Fortune 500 companies in technology, retail, manufacturing, health care, pharmaceuticals, hospitality—you name it. The good news, though, is that it's easy to diagnose.
In my experience of working with managers and executives, that starts by asking a single question: "How many of you send out emails from home at night?" Nearly everyone raises their hand.
Reading that may only inspire a shrug—you probably do the same thing. And you might roll your eyes to learn that the pernicious habit of answering work emails after hours is the widespread problem I'm talking about. Far from being news, we've grown amazingly adept at discussing overwork in general and email overload in particular.
But there's one thing that might surprise you about that late-night emailing habit: It's overwhelmingly voluntary, and therefore largely avoidable.
You’re Doing It To Yourself
After the resounding yesses I usually elicit by asking professionals about their evening email habits, I'll pose a second question: "How many of you expect your employees to answer those emails right away?" Only about 20 percent raise their hands.
Then I’ll ask, "How many of you answer emails from your boss at night?" Around 80 percent of hands go up.
"Based on what we’ve just seen," I continue, "do you think there’s around an 80 percent chance that your boss doesn’t expect an answer right away, the same way that you don’t?" The response: blank stares.
We’ve created a prison of expectations in the corporate world, as smartphones erase any sense of boundaries between "on hours" and "off hours." And with the economy putting more and more pressure on companies and employees to do more with less, we’ve got a perfect recipe for burnout and stress in the workplace.
We tend to blame overbearing work cultures on that erosion, and justifiably so. But our own habits and our office's unspoken pressures can be mutually reinforcing. Much of the pressure to be "on" during evening hours, weekends, or vacations is coming from workers themselves, not their bosses. In other words, we’re operating under a mass delusion, and it’s making us miserable.