It’s your first day on holiday, and you jump out of bed and climb straight into your swimwear. You head down the stairs, taking them two at a time, and race to the pool. You’re about to jump in, when the lifeguard stops you.
“Message for you, at reception”
You’re puzzled. You go back to the reception desk. The receptionist hands you a stack of work, and tells you that your boss just sent it through.
“Don’t worry” they reassure you, “your boss doesn’t expect you to do the work right now. I’ll send it up to your room, for when you’re done with your holiday.”
Is this acceptable? No.
Now, you might have heard me talk about the damage you can cause by sending emails after hours, or to people who are off sick, or to people who are on holiday.
But I bet you still do it.
Once upon a time, emails were called phone calls. And before that, they were called letters. Now, imagine if emails had never been invented. Would it have been acceptable to call an employee who was off sick, to talk to them about work? Probably not. Would it have been acceptable to stuff letters through their door in the middle of the night, for them to pick up in the morning? Definitely not.
But the thing is with emails, is that it is really easy for you to just dump them on anybody, at any time. And what’s worrying, is that people think this is an acceptable thing to do, without considering the consequences.
If I had a big project I needed somebody to start, would I have normally called them up at 4pm on a Friday afternoon, and said “please do this”? No, I don’t think I would. I would wait until Monday. So why is this acceptable to do via email?
And maybe you reason with yourself, and say “it’s OK, because I don’t actually expect the recipient to take any notice until they’re back at work.” But the trouble is, that if you are the recipient’s boss – and sometimes, even if you’re not – then they aren’t always going to think that this email can wait. They might be thinking that you’ve sent it now, and therefore you need it doing now.
And what I think this illustrates, is that we don’t care about the consequences. If it gets it out of our own personal in-tray, then we don’t seem to care about how this feels for the person we’re sending it to.
So what should we do about this problem? On a personal level, we can simply pledge to stop sending emails after hours. But as responsible employers, there’s so much more we could be doing.
If you have heard me speak about this, you may have heard me mention the examples of two German car companies. Each company has tackled this problem in a fairly extreme, but very admirable, way.
In 2012, Volkswagen decided that emails outside of working hours were harmful, and took action. They blocked their company’s Blackberry servers from sending emails 30 minutes after the end of employees’ shifts. Emails were set to resume 30 minutes before the next shift.
Admittedly, this move only applied to certain employees in Germany, working under trade union negotiated contracts. But it’s a start.
And then you get Daimler. Another German car manufacturer, Daimler went a step further, and actually built a programme that will delete emails sent to employees who are away from work. They don’t even store them up until the next day or the next week. They literally delete the emails.
It’s an optional service, of course. And the sender of the email does get notified that their email has been deleted, which is nice.
But while policies like the above are nice, most employees are still at the mercy of their employer. It all just depends on whether or not your company decides to do something about the epidemic of emails outside of working hours.
Unless, of course, you live in France.
I like a lot of French laws. But the one I like the most, is the one that came into force at the start of 2017, which concerns an employee’s “right to disconnect”.
Under this law, companies have a duty to regulate the use of out-of-office emails. This is to ensure employees get a break from the office, and is a move that French unions have long campaigned for. But when it was first launched, many people – myself included – believed it was largely unenforceable.
But guess what? British firm Rentokill just got ordered to pay €60,000, to an ex-employee from its French wing, for failing to respect his “right to disconnect” from his phone and computer outside office hours.
Do I think we should campaign for a change in the law here in the UK? We do want people to be able to work flexibly if they choose. But if these 24-7 email practices continue, we could consider some good practice guidelines, or indeed, legislation.
Do I think your company should block emails from being sent outside of hours? Best practice and the default position should be that managers (and colleagues) do not send emails outside office. But this should include dispensations for important business communications, and international time differences.
What I do know for sure though, is that the inability to switch off from work can be very damaging to a person’s mental health. And regardless of where you live, or what your company’s policy is, I think it is expedient for every single one of us to think twice, before hitting send on an email outside of the recipient’s working hours.
About the author
A 50th anniversary professor, he was awarded a CBE for his contribution to organisational health in 2001. He was knighted for his services to social science in 2014. And as “the media’s first choice for comment on workplace issues”, Professor Sir Cary Cooper needs little introduction.
Cary also co-founded Robertson Cooper, with Ivan Robertson in 1999, where he remains an active member of the team to this date.