The impact of out-of-hours emails

Sept. 5, 2017
Joanna Mercer

Joanna Mercer

Selection Associate, Ambition School Leadership

Many professionals, including school leaders, find that they must work out of hours in order to achieve all of their tasks.

They must then find a way of doing this that doesn’t affect their wellbeing or set a bad example to staff.

While studying for my Masters in Occupational Psychology, I became interested in the impact of out-of-hours work emails on employees. A friend of mine was so permanently switched on to work that she even answered emails when we went running.

So I began a piece of research into what policies companies have relating to email usage. I interviewed 200 employees to measure how much they used their smartphone to complete work in their own personal time and how they felt this impacted on their life.

As part of this work, I discovered boundary theory: a theory that claims people are either flexible and happy to integrate their work and life (integrators) and those that prefer to keep their work and personal roles, separate (segmenters). While some people are wholly one or the other, most people fall somewhere on the continuum between the two points of view.  

Segmentors vs Intergraters

This goes some way to explain why people protested over the French ‘right to disconnect’ law introduced at the beginning of this year. The law was created to protect workers from the compulsion to check emails out of work, but some felt that it prevented them from agile, flexible working and communicating with staff globally.

French policy makers assumed everyone disliked checking emails and therefore used a one-size-fits-all approach. They assumed everyone was a segmenter and this was not the case.

Similarly my research found that if everyone in a company was expected to use their smartphones out of hours, segmenters became increasingly stressed, disengaged and ultimately more likely to quit.

Both these examples show that there is a significant difference between individuals.

To avoid this, I used my research to make suggestions for school leaders on meeting the differing needs of segmenters and integrators:

  • Encourage staff to reflect on their own lives and whether work emails are causing conflict, using the integrator- segmenter diagram
  • Offer staff training in managing work emails
  • Consult staff to create guidelines based on their preferences
  • Encourage a culture where staff feel they have the support of others in their preferred approach to work emails


I continued researching this issue when I joined Ambition School Leadership, asking the participants on the Future Leaders programme for their thoughts on out-of-hours emails:

Katie Fitzsimmons, Temporary Vice Principal, Quintin Kynaston School

As a leader I know that my behaviour impacts on my team and sets the tone for their behaviour and wellbeing. If I send an email at 3am, there is a real danger that they see this as an expectation, regardless of my intention.

As a team member if I see an email at 10pm as I shut down my phone, I feel duty-bound to respond. However, as a mother, these behaviours take me away from my children both in the ten minutes it will take to respond but more significantly in my attitude to every evening and day. Work becomes the unseen spectre, constantly present.

I think the key to dealing with out-of-hours emails lies in clear, robust and genuine guidance. An honest culture that says we expect ‘x’ or we do not expect ‘y’.

It means balance. Things still need to be done. It might mean saying for a specific project or period of time: ‘Yes, I do need you to be responding to emails up to 10pm and from 7am because we have a pressing need.’

It might be that different rules apply to SLT. It should be that holiday expectations are clear too. And it requires follow up. To help team members establish balance they need reminding of the boundaries and reasons behind them. 

Rachael Hallam, Deputy Head of TLA, The Oldham Academy, North

Having been described as a workaholic since the start of my career, it goes without saying I have been guilty of sending emails late into the night and in the early morning. Sometimes I check them when I wake up in the middle of the night!

However, looking back on my career in sending these emails to NQTs or to the dedicated and hardworking middle leaders fills me with a sense of guilt. Being on the receiving end of an email requesting something, even if it's deemed to be non-urgent, causes the receiver undue stress and panic, potentially ruining weekends and Sunday evenings.

It's safe to say that our new policy at Oldham Academy - no emails after 8pm and no emails at the weekend - is having a positive impact on not only our work/life balance but also ensures that we have face-to-face conversations more regularly during the day about both trivial and major events.

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