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Podcast Length Icon 33:05 10 Dec 2019

Do expectations of work emails create anxiety?

After having served on a nuclear submarine in the US Navy and spending some time working at nuclear power plants, William Becker decided he needed a change. What made him decide on academia, and in particular neuroscience, emotions and HRM? In this captivating episode, we are hosting Professor Becker, of Virginia Tech, co-author of one of the most touted research papers of 2018: Killing me softly: Electronic communications monitoring and employee and spouse well-being.

Bill has published several very interesting articles about the link between email and burnout and emotional wellbeing, but also spillover between work and non-work domains. Having read one of his co-authored research papers, Killing me softly: Electronic communications monitoring and employee and spouse well-being, we decided to reach out and invite him to our show.

To find out more about the work of Professor Becker, visit his ResearchGate profile. What follows here are snippets from our conversation with Professor William J Becker - edited for length and clarity - make sure you listen to the entire conversation for the great insight!

Agnes Uhereczky: Over to you Bill. Would you mind telling listeners a little bit about yourself and career? What gets you up in the morning?

William (Bill) Becker: Actually, I came to academics a bit late and spent the early part of my career in the United States Navy serving on nuclear submarines, then spent some time working on nuclear power plants. Interestingly enough that was sort of the opposite of lots of electronic communications since when on a submarine you don't get more than one short radio message every three weeks. Perhaps this was what sparked my interest in the area of message overload which we are subjected to now. I got my PhD at the University of Arizona where I got interested in neuroscience which led me to my interest in emotions. So, again, early on I was trying to connect neuroscience and emotions to this broader view of organisational behaviour and human resources. Along the lines, though I got interested even more so in this idea of electronic communications, and particularly work email.

This was also fuelled by personal reasons. My wife got a new boss - when I started my first academic job and we moved to Texas - who had this amazing expectation for people to respond and read their emails at all hours of the day, night, weekend or vacations even to the point of expecting someone to be up at 5 am and respond to an email at 5 am within 15 or 20 minutes. When I saw the effect this had on her I started wanting to look into that, which led to this continued investigation into work email and electronic communication which have been going on for 6 years. Early on I tried to look at just the emotions that those emails produced in people and the effects they had. More recently we got interested in the idea in monitoring and expectations to monitor. This is a pretty new area of research and a lot of the previous research was looking more at the time people were spending reading or replying to emails. Some of the findings we were seeing from our work suggested that it wasn't so much the time as the expectations to monitor and the actual monitoring behaviour which led to our current couple of studies, like the one you mentioned.

Agnes Uhereczky: What we know is that email and digital communications have changed the way we work. In a nutshell, how has email and digital communications permeated the world of work? What are the big changes that we are perhaps not even aware of?

William (Bill) Becker: The insidious thing about work-related electronic communications and work email is that these revolutions happened in our social lives first, and we kind of became used to getting quick messages from people and being connected with people through various social media platforms. As this moved towards work what happened I think is that we lost those boundaries between work and non-work, and by now it is hard to tell where our work lives end and our non-work life starts sometimes. There are certainly some benefits to this, for instance, we can be more flexible or responsive, have flexible working arrangements. There are also these drawbacks where we don't ever shift out of our work mindset. We don’t have definitive work mindsets and non-work mindsets which I think a lot of the early research shows that it is really important to turn off your work selves sometime and engage in your relationships and your non-work activities. This is important.

Agnes Uhereczky: How did this come about that you started linking emotions and organisational behaviour with digital communication? How did your research unfold?

William (Bill) Becker: Some of this came out from my interest in neuroscience where you start to find out how little we know about the brain. We tend to think that all emotions are equal and that these things don’t affect us long term. Research in emotions shows that small emotional episodes can have an impact that resonates for a long time after the event and that they even change our thought patterns over time. One of the things that I was interested in in our study was that emails triggered emotions in people. We tend to read things into our emails that actually might not be intended. Interestingly enough we found, though, that work emails produce positive as well as negative emotions. But the problem is that negative emotions are generally much stronger and in particular anger is an emotion once you get triggered that has a pretty far-reaching impact on our brains and how our brain processes other information. And so those negative emotions outweigh the positive emotions we have.

In particular, anger can ruin your whole day or can create problems with your ability to interact with people positively later in the day.

Whereas those positive emotions we get once in a while tend to go away pretty quickly and don’t have the same kinds of effects. This was one of our original findings which looked into the power of emotions and their long term effects. This led us to look at this monitoring behaviour and expectations, so we included emotions in there and showed that even the monitoring of emails can create lots of anxiety. This is one of the emotions which has pretty far-reaching effects in the brain and set us up to not have real positive interactions and positive experiences because we have this background anxiety always present.

Agnes Uhereczky: To manage the negative effect of work-life spillover we find many attempts. For example, famously, Volkswagen in Germany decided to switch off their email servers, another example is the recent French law on the Right to Disconnect. What is your opinion about these solutions?

William (Bill) Becker: I think these are short-sighted and will never work. Certainly, I think, as individuals and employees there are things that we can do and we can be more mindful about when we are looking at emails, and we can be very open with our supervisors about what we think is appropriate and get clarification about these things. But, again, I think overall these are not going to solve this bigger problem, and the way for this bigger problem to get solved is going to fall on front line strong leaders, who can recognize that this is a problem that is going to hurt their employees in the long term. And if they want productive and creative well-balanced happy employees they need to care about this issue and be very proactive in how they talk to their employees and establish boundaries for them. Because, again, these other approaches put the onus back on the individual. And the individual is in a low power position. They depend on their organisation and their leader for a job, promotion or raises.