4 Surprising Ways After-Hours Emails May Be Damaging Your Health

After a full day of work, our bodies need distance to de-stress.
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After a full day of work, our bodies need distance to de-stress.

After-hours emailing may seem innocent, but it can hurt our productivity and health. In fact, 95 percent of people use an electronic device within an hour of going to bed a few nights a week. An absent-minded glance at your inbox can quickly turn a relaxing evening into a few more hours of work or worry. Maura Thomas, award-winning productivity speaker and author, says, “I’ve seen over the past decade how after-hours emails speed up corporate cultures—and that, in turn, chips away at creativity, innovation, and true productivity.”

The average employee sends or receives 131 business emails per day, and researchers forecast that it will only get worse. This 24-hour email influx and multi-device access creates an expectation of immediacy. We instinctively check our inboxes for unread messages at all hours of the day and night. But we need downtime from devices and work to keep our brains and bodies balanced.

Feel pressure to fire off or read a few more emails during your commute home, before crawling into bed, or while out with friends? Hold off. Here’s how after-hours emails are wearing away at your health.

01. They contribute to sleep loss and irregularity.

Checking your email within an hour or so of heading to bed can cause sleep deprivation and poor quality rest. According to the National Sleep Foundation, “Reading a work email at 9:30 p.m. can keep you up with stress; the blue light from the screen mimics daylight and stimulates you; and you can wake up feeling tired, anxious, and depressed.” Harvard Business School researchers explain that the light exposure from smartphones, specifically blue light, prevents sleep because it suppresses the sleep-inducing chemical melatonin. So that late-night inbox cleanout may feel like progress, but it can be harder to fall asleep and stay asleep.

02. They weaken your mental control and alertness.

Your late-night inbox habits not only cut into your sleep but also make you less alert and focused at work the next day. A Harvard University study of U.S. managers and employees found that those who use a smartphone for work after 9 p.m. had impaired cognitive control the next workday. They gave in to distractions, demonstrated poor judgment, and were less creative and attentive. Thomas advocates for email-free time to rejuvenate our brains: “Creativity, inspiration, and motivation are your competitive advantage, but they are also depletable resources that need to be recharged.”

03. They increase the risk of anxiety and depression disorders.

An urgent or upsetting email stresses us out when we should be decompressing from the day. Stress management expert Genella Macintyre shares with Verily, “Technology, designed to make us more productive, has added to our stress in many ways. For example, some organizations expect their employees to be available by smartphone or email even when they are at home or on vacation.”

Besides bringing on stress, this constant connectivity can lead to mental health issues. A Psychological Medicine study found that participants with high psychological job demands, such as excessive workloads and time pressures, had twice the risk of developing diagnosable depression and anxiety. It may seem dramatic to associate emailing with mental illness, but the stress it causes can compound over time into something more serious.

04. They can cause eyestrain and blurred vision.

Both our brains and our eyes need a break from screen time. American Optometric Association research shows that the average American worker spends seven hours a day on the computer either in the office or at home. Overexposure to computer, tablet, e-reader and smartphone screens can cause digital eye strain. Symptoms of digital eye strain include headaches, blurred vision, dry eyes, and neck and shoulder pain.

Spending time on email management after hours increases your chances of experiencing these symptoms. Ophthalmologist Dr. Brian Boxer Wachler explains that we usually blink eighteen times per minute, but staring at a digital device reduces our blink rate and causes our eyes to burn, dry out, or become itchy.

After a full day of work, our bodies need distance to de-stress. Set boundaries and expectations for after-hours emailing, both with yourself and your coworkers. Business coach David Scarola shares a general rule with us, “Don’t open an email you don’t have time to reply to until you’re ready to respond.” Everyone needs a break to perform their best and stay healthy, so don’t fall victim to inbox addiction.

Photo Credit: William Iven