Monday 25 November 2019 6:26 am

Why banning after-work emails is a bad idea

David Carry is chief executive of Track Record and a former Olympic swimmer.

From “Massage Mondays” to “Drinks Trolley Fridays”, many organisations have started putting wellbeing initiatives in place to combat burnout. 

Even airports are thinking about the wellbeing of their customers by bringing puppies and pigs into their lounges to calm passengers facing delayed flights. 

But how effective are these initiatives in actually reducing stress? 

Double-edged sword

Many C-suite teams in FTSE 100 companies admit to getting up at 4am to clear their inbox, or sifting through emails on the sofa in the evenings. While this may feel like it’s easing the burden, missing out on sleep or down-time only reduces recovery time further. 

As a result, one popular method being used to support stressed-out staff is the banning of out-of-hours emailing, installed by companies such as Volkeswagen and Lidl. 

However, recent research from the University of Sussex has shown that banning after-work emails actually increases stress for some employees, further complicating the situation. 

What these findings show is that there is no one-size-fits-all fix for workplace stress. 

They also highlight a crucial issue with existing  stress management initiatives — the very people who are creating and implementing them are unaware of how best to manage their own stress levels.

The most successful employee stress initiatives are those that encourage individuals to manage it for themselves. But this must begin with awareness that they are in a stressed state, as well as what does and doesn’t make it worse.

Blanket policies 

People who are good at managing stress are not necessarily successful because they never send emails after-hours. Rather, they’re good because they understand how best to manage their own performance. 

For example, they know what time of day to schedule difficult meetings or tasks to give themselves enough recovery time for important decision-making. 

Rather than launching blanket policies, organisations that are serious about wellbeing must support their employees in understanding what their stress triggers are. They should then help to manage the symptoms and develop personalised performance plans. 

Another important realisation for many senior leaders is the impact that their behaviours have on the wider organisation or team. 

While many chief executives are either reticent about their work hours and stress levels or consider themselves good at coping by working extremely long hours, in reality this can have a trickle-down effect on the company culture. Leaders who encourage workforce wellbeing initiatives must start looking at their own stress and ensure that they’re setting the tone for the wider business. 

Stress down

When launching or reviewing workplace wellbeing schemes, I’d also encourage businesses to ask themselves how the initiatives will be received by different sections of their workforce. For example, parents may appreciate flexibility or the ability to catch up on emails after the school run far more than the after-work drinks favoured by younger employees.

Ultimately, employee wellbeing initiatives are about balance — on their own, they aren’t necessarily bad, but organisations need to consider how they are spending their resources versus the actual output. 

The most successful stress reduction schemes don’t simply alleviate the symptoms, but address the causes. It is only when individuals take control of their own wellbeing that cultural change occurs. 

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.