I remember a conversation with a colleague a couple years ago: During one summer Friday, nearly half his work emails bounced back with out-of-office autoreplies. My colleague rolled his eyes. "It's not like they're really not reading their emails on vacation," he groaned.
He has a point. Once, I myself couldn't resist the temptation of reading work emails on vacation, even though I wasn't due back in the office for a week. And the rest of the country seems similarly gripped: One often-quoted survey from the American Psychological Association found that over 50 percent of U.S. workers checked their email before and after work, and even during sick days.
Why do we find ourselves reading emails during vacation or sick days, even when we don't have to? Ian Bogost, a professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology (and an Atlantic contributing editor), says that email sorting is just the default activity when there's nothing else to do. "Email pruning doesn’t enact work so much as it simulates work: It’s a ritual—like a secular, corporate rosary—which we perform in the hopes that it will somehow help us leave the domain of ineffectual work and re-enter the domain of gratifying productivity," says Bogost.
Concerns about email anxiety and technology blurring the boundaries between one's work and personal life have been increasing in the last few years, but how does email rank on the spectrum of work-related burdens?
A new survey of 2,000 adults from Workfront, a project management app, found that 40 percent of employees feel that it's fine to answer an urgent work email during dinner. But when asked what aspects have the most negative impact on work-life balance, work emails ranked rather low at 18 percent—topping the list were bad bosses, working after hours, and employers being inflexible about vacation. It might be a case of picking one's battles, but the overwhelming response to how employers could improve work-life balance was to offer flexible work schedules (supported by 69 percent of respondents) and allow employees to work remotely (55 percent); limiting emails to working hours was the priority of just 23 percent.
What's more, a Gallup poll last year showed that 86 percent of those who frequently check email while away from work actually saw it as a positive development. Even for employees who were required to keep tabs on email after work hours, 81 percent saw it as a good thing. The poll's authors speculated that this surprising result was, like flexible work, due to convenience: For example, instead of being stuck at the office waiting for an email, workers can attend family or personal events. Another study from Texas A&M University found that those who like their jobs don't mind checking emails after work hours (those who didn't like their jobs were unsurprisingly negative).
Another factor that might be limiting the angst of checking email after work is the notion that as work bleeds into personal time, the reverse might also be true—there's at least some anecdotal evidence that workers are not always working at work. It's also worth considering that while Americans work especially long and unusual hours, compared to some parts of the world. In fact, a Harvard study found that working longer hours made Americans happier than Europeans. (Nobel economist Ed Prescott argues that this discrepancy in work hours is not due to a "cultural difference," but rather that certain marginal tax rates incentivize Americans to work more.) For all these reasons, Americans might be more open to the idea of after-hours emailing than those in other cultures.
In Europe, Germany is celebrated for letting their workers take truly disconnected vacations: German car maker Daimler has a program that automatically deletes all incoming work emails during an employee's vacation, and lets the sender know they should contact someone else. This policy almost went further, into post-workday territory: A study has been commissioned by the country's minister of labor to investigate how much time and stress after-hours work emails add to a worker's load, the minister briefly considered laws to make it illegal to email colleagues after 6 p.m. (before the effort was criticized by Angela Merkel). Since the ritual of constant email maintenance appears to be firmly entrenched in the U.S., it seems that the only way to combat it would be to take this legislative tack.