This is What Checking Email After Work Does to Your Brain
The past two years have changed Americans' relationships to work, the office, and the ever-elusive concept of work-life balance. We've widely become even more aware of how stress can affect our day-to-day lives. We crave stronger boundaries between work and play, and we're keen on careers that recognize and respect the effects of burnout. Each time we check our email or respond to work tasks after hours, though, we may be causing undue stress.
At a highly demanding job, the idea of completely signing off and leaving work untouched for hours on end can be anxiety-inducing. The alternative, of never really logging off and being always on, however, can perpetuate an even worse cycle of stress.
A 2016 study, conducted by authors from Lehigh, Virginia Tech, and Colorado State universities, looked into the particular impacts of email as a job stressor—and found that email hinders workers' ability to recuperate outside of work. "Email is notoriously known to be the impediment of the recovery process," the authors wrote. "Its accessibility contributes to experience of work overload since it allows employees to engage in work as if they never left the workspace."
While the boundaries between time on and off the clock often get blurred, there's a science behind why they're so important—and why even getting a work notification on your personal phone affects overall mood and well-being. To find out more, we talked to experts about how checking email after-hours can impact mental health and why it's necessary to take intentional, restful breaks from our jobs.
What work-related stress does to our brains
It doesn't take a brain surgeon to tell you that opening your email after work, or fielding a text message from your boss while you're at the park with your kids is stressful. But what you might not realize is that each time you're bombarded with these reminders of urgent or even far-off tasks for your 9-to-5, your brain goes into overdrive.
Psychotherapist Dr. Daryl Appleton, an executive coach who works with Fortune 500 clients at the height of their careers, has frequently observed this in action. Burnout is very real among these top dogs (as it is among many American workers) and when they fail to fully step away from the office, their bodies end up producing consistent, low levels of cortisol (the stress hormone). That really messes you up, Dr. Appleton says.
"Three things happen in the brain when we have consistent stress," she says. "First, the amygdala starts to overreact and see everything as a threat." That means you might read a work email and think your boss is being passive-aggressive. Or, a minor inconvenience outside of the office could feel like the end of the world.
"Second, the prefrontal cortex starts to freak out a bit," Dr. Appleton says, "meaning our decision-making becomes more emotional than rational."
And third, the hippocampus, our memory center, shrinks, she says. "If you've ever been on your phone and then thought to yourself, 'where is my phone?' and it's in your hand. Or 'where are my keys?' and you're holding them—those are signs that you're stressed-out," Dr. Appleton says. "Forgetting that email or forgetting to do that report, these are all signs you're heading toward burnout and fatigue."
In other words, trying to stay on top of work around the clock can actually be more detrimental to your performance than taking intentional breaks from the grind. And it can affect how we act outside of work too.
Lily Ostler, licensed master social worker and psychotherapist with Forward in Heels, coaches clients dealing with burnout. She often hears from clients who feel their work stress is bleeding over into their personal lives. "There are definitely impacts on their friendships, romantic relationships, family relationships, and a lot of negative emotions like basic frustration, and disappointments," Ostler says.
Resolving some of this stress starts by really, truly logging off from work—and that goes beyond just setting your Slack status to "Away."
How to be intentional with rest outside of work
Dr. Appleton focuses on coaching her clients to intentionally engage in various types of rest while they aren't on the clock. That doesn't just mean catching up on sleep.
Physical rest for our bodies is one piece of the puzzle, but mental rest for our minds is also important. This might involve rest from stimuli such as loud machinery or visual distractions, rest from decision-making—like allowing a friend to take the lead on dinner plans for a change—or rest from creativity where you don't worry about solving problems or creating anything. There's also spiritual rest, which Dr. Appleton defines as not wondering about our place in the world but just learning how to exist.
How to manage stress while at work
Even if we manage to master our time away from the office to harness the power of rest, being at work every day is a different animal. Thankfully, there are ways to manage stress on the clock as well.
Dr. Appleton coaches each of her clients to keep a toolkit on hand to combat stressors. "I have them put things in their purses or briefcase for each of the senses," she says.
Dr. Appleton specifically recommends her clients keep breath mints or cooling gum around, so that they can take a piece and take a walk when stress peaks. Soon, the taste of the mint itself takes on a calming effect. Calming playlists, essential oils, and stress balls or worry stones can also have similar soothing effects on the senses when work becomes overwhelming.
Managers can also help employees who are struggling with stress overload. In that 2016 study on email as a job stressor, the authors found that the actual amount of time people spent on email didn't affect their emotional exhaustion levels or work-life balance as much as their beliefs about what was expected of them did. For many people, these beliefs created a constant state of anxiety and uncertainty—referred to as "anticipatory stress"—regardless of how often they actually checked in.
"If an organization perpetuates the 'always-on' culture, it may prevent employees from fully disengaging from work eventually leading to chronic stress," Liuba Belkin, associate professor of management at Lehigh's College of Business and Economics and co-author of the study, said in a press release.
So, managers can make a big difference in employee stress levels by cultivating a culture that encourages intentional time off. Ashish Kaushal, CEO of HireTalent, a nationwide contingent staffing firm focused on diversity staffing, said his company gave employees an extra two weeks of mandatory vacation time in 2021, which they had to use up before the end of the year. Some employees took it all at once while others opted for four-day workweeks through the end of the year.
Ostler urges her clients to use their weekends as intended and to avoid checking their inboxes even on Sunday nights to get a jumpstart on their week.
If your company culture doesn't prioritize rest outside of work, it's important—for the sake of your personal health—to talk with your managers about setting healthier boundaries.
"Obviously, much of this depends on your relationship with your manager and company policies," Ostler says. It's easier to tell your boss you won't be available on weekends than to explain why you won't be checking email in the evenings on a workday. These conversations can be daunting, Ostler admits, but many employees who haven't had them might be surprised to learn their managers are understanding of these kinds of practices.
If you find that your managers aren't open to these conversations, it might be worth looking into jobs with better work-life balance—because you owe it to yourself.