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Workplace habit that is slowly eroding your health

·3-min read
Graphic design image of stressed man inside orange and white beams of colour.
When's the last time you really put your phone away after work? (Image: Getty).

When you log out of work for the day, is that the last time you check your professional emails?

It might take only a few seconds to draft that quick reply, but the University of South Australia has a warning for you: that swift response is likely damaging your health.

The new research released in July found that significant levels of out-of-hours communication were accompanied by high levels of stress.

“Employees who had supervisors expecting them to respond to work messages after work, compared to groups who did not, reported higher levels of psychological distress (70.4 per cent compared to 45.2 per cent) and emotional exhaustion (63.5 per cent compared to 35.2 per cent),” organisational psychology research fellow Amy Zadow explained in The Conversation.

“They also reported physical health symptoms, such as headaches and back pain (22.1 per cent compared to 11.5 per cent).”

The study of 2,200 academics found that the stress wasn’t reduced when the emails were from colleagues, rather than bosses.

In fact, 75.9 per cent of employees who felt they needed to respond to colleagues out of hours reported psychological stress, compared to 39.3 per cent of those who didn’t feel they needed to reply.

The same trend occurred for emotional exhaustion and physical health symptoms, to a lesser degree.

“The personal and social implications of blurred boundaries between home and work are serious. When employees are answering calls or responding to emails at home, this affects their recovery from work - both mentally and physically,” Zadow said.

“Being in a constant state of hyper-vigilance awaiting work notifications at home can affect metabolism and immunity, creating susceptibility to serious health problems such as infection, high blood pressure and depression.”

Additionally, being ready to answer emails at all hours can come at the cost of physical exercise, time spent outdoors and time spent with friends.

Zadow said that while it's a good start to restrict bosses from emailing staff out of hours t, workplaces also need to ensure that colleagues also aren’t emailing each other.

“Ultimately, our problem with out-of-hours emails and messaging reflects broader societal issues relating to the pressures of productivity, job insecurity and diminishing work resources.”

Longer hours linked to heart disease, stroke

The University of South Australia’s research follows the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) warning that working overtime can strip years from workers’ lives.

The WHO analysis found as many as 745,000 deaths in 2016 were linked to having worked at least 55-hour weeks earlier in those workers’ lives.

Working overtime was linked to a 42 per cent increase in heart disease deaths and a 19 per cent increase in stroke deaths.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly changed the way many people work,” said WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

"Teleworking has become the norm in many industries, often blurring the boundaries between home and work. In addition, many businesses have been forced to scale back or shut down operations to save money, and people who are still on the payroll end up working longer hours.

“No job is worth the risk of stroke or heart disease. Governments, employers and workers need to work together to agree on limits to protect the health of workers.”

The average workday around the world has increased by more than two hours since the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, data from business support firm NordVPN Teams revealed in February.

It found that workers were also taking shorter breaks, working while sick and were more likely to respond to work demands out of hours.

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