Email invasion causes stress

06 April, 2010

The much-touted "work/life balance" has been found to be riddled with paradox with new research showing work-related email invading workers' homes and leisure spaces, causing stress, anxiety, an inability to switch off, as well as potential damage to family relationships.

Dr Melissa Gregg from the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney carried out the study: "Working from home: New media technology, workplace culture and the changing nature of domesticity".

The study was part of an Australian Postdoctoral Fellowship Project in which in-depth interviews were conducted with 26 information workers from large organisations across different industry groups over three years.The research project coincided with the rise of online culture over the past three years: specifically social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Dr Gregg says until now many people have considered these platforms to be part of people's leisure practices that they engage with in their time off.

"But for workers in a range of office jobs, it's become part of the job. And largely this has happened without any discussion at the workplace about implications for workload," Dr Gregg says.

Dr Gregg found that many of the interviewees believed checking and sending emails from home did not constitute "work". They would check email at night in bed, and as early as 6am before children woke, so that they could focus on "real work" in office hours.

The study also found children using computers and other technology at home were affected by the workloads of their parents who seemed too distracted or exhausted with work to interact with them. Part-time workers were found to keep email accounts open on official non-work days to "keep things moving" and avoid "holding up" full-time workers.

"This study was designed to pick up all that extra work that goes on outside the office, which is generally sold to us as this new freedom to be in touch with work when it suits us," Dr Gregg says. "We found some surprising stories from people who said they were concerned that their children were addicted to the internet, but who were actually showing signs of addiction themselves. But these people didn't see their use of computers as a problem because it was to do with work.

"This hidden labour in the home also translates to a significant amount of unpaid work performed by women. It's another factor in the ongoing gender pay gap."

Dr Gregg says that many participants in the study reported increased signs of stress and anxiety.

"The evidence shows that most people think it is just their own individual failing that they can't keep up both with the technology and the amount of communication they are having to deal with. Once you see this message across industries you know that that is a problem that has to be dealt with structurally, not by forcing workers to adopt individual solutions.

Source: University of Sydney