Should employees be reachable by email during their leisure time?

Is it OK for a manager to email employees in the evenings and on weekends? More employers should have explicit rules about emailing outside working hours, according to Mikael Ottosson, who is researching the work environment within a project entitled “Going home already?

Mikael Ottosson

Fluid working hours means freedom to some people and stress to others, says Mikael Ottoson. Photo: Ulrika Oredsson

Our working hours have become porous and many people currently have no clear boundaries between their work and leisure time. Mikael Ottosson remembers the 90s when he was a doctoral student at the Department of History:

“We had a computer with an internet connection so I used to go there sometimes to check whether any emails had come in. They rarely had.”

20 years later, he could spend his entire working day writing and answering emails, if he wanted to. Of the approximately 100 emails he receives per day, he thinks that only one tenth are relevant to him. The rest are spam or the result of being copied in to long email exchanges that he really has nothing to do with.

“The ‘Reply to all’ function should be used extremely sparingly”, he says emphatically.

Mikael Ottosson talks about symbolic communication, a phenomenon which he has studied in a research project on the work environment, conducted together with his colleague Calle Rosengren.

Ottosson’s concept of symbolic communication refers to the symbolic content of emailing, for example to signify that one is busy and working. He believes there is a connection between symbolic emailing and working from home: if you send an email, your colleagues know you are sitting at your computer working.
Mikael Ottosson also sees a connection between excessive emailing and undefined work duties:

“Many people today have quite unclear work duties, in which one does not see immediate results”, he says. “In cases like that, emailing can be a way of showing one is conscientious and actually performing. ”

Being constantly connected has also blurred the boundary between working life and leisure time. Many people take work home with them, but also take their leisure time to work. The behaviour is reinforced by the communication tools we use at work often being the same ones we use during our leisure time.

“Working time has become more porous”, says Mikael Ottosson and, true to his nature as a historian, he draws parallels with the pre-industrial period in which working days were long, but perhaps less compact than when industrial work made its appearance.

“Just as now, work continued until bedtime. Except at that time, of course, the stress of needing to be reachable at all times was absent”, he adds.

For many people, flexible working hours are a good way to get all the pieces of life’s puzzle to fit together. For others, however, the lack of boundaries is a source of stress. Mikael Ottosson believes that the constant connectedness with work could be a partial explanation for the increased number of people suffering from burn-out and stress-related problems. According to a survey conducted by Ottosson and his colleague Calle Rosengren, over 30 per cent of Sweden’s population answer work emails outside working hours and 23 per cent report that they are expected to be reachable on their cell phones and by email after work.

In France, since the beginning of this year, a law obliges employers to establish a policy on work from home. This is positive legislation according to Mikael Ottosson:

“It does not mean you are not allowed to work from home, but it obliges the employer to take a position on the rules that apply. This reduces the uncertainty that many people find difficult.”

However, if the employer does not regulate emailing, you must do it yourself. Otherwise you become both stressed and inefficient, believes Mikael Ottosson, although he does not practise what he preaches:

“No, I am working from home at the moment and have fluid working hours …”