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Smartphones are great at keeping us in touch wherever, whenever, but sometimes we need to disconnect and relax. Here’s why (and how).

According to US-based market research firm Radicati, 125.5 billion business emails are sent every day and the average office worker receives 121 emails per day. A significant portion of these is sent outside of traditional working hours, a trend experts says could negatively impact employee sentiment.

Professor Mias de Klerk, who specialises in leadership and organisational behaviour at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB), says through technology such as smartphones we’ve become available 24/7, 365 days of the year. ‘Many leaders expect their team to always be available. At first people feel very important being available at all hours, but it becomes too much and will have a negative impact. Very often people won’t complain until it’s too late and they burn out.’

While many organisations and managers preach the importance of work/life balance, Professor De Klerk says work is still a big part of who we are, and this can be abused by organisations. He points out that to counter this, France passed a bill in 2017 stating that companies with more than 50 employees must guarantee their workers the right to disconnect, i.e. they should not be expected to be available after 5pm. Some companies have also taken drastic steps in this regard. In 2014, German automotive company Daimler introduced a programme that deleted all incoming emails to employees when they were on leave. An out of office-type reply is returned to the sender informing them that their email will be deleted. The aim is not only to not interrupt the employee’s time off, but also to eliminate the packed inbox when they return.

For many managers whose days are filled with meetings, after hours is the best time to catch up on their email. Although they may not expect a response before Monday morning, their team may feel pressure to respond immediately, reinforcing a 'forever on' organisational culture, says Prof de Klerk.

Forbes recently published a list of reasons late-night emails can destroy your business. These included the impact they have on your sleep, a drop in productivity, employees questioning your respect for their private lives and increasing the chances of miscommunication.

Here are some ways to manage your after-hours email habits:

Use other communication tools

Don’t make email your go-to. If something is really that urgent that it can’t wait until the next day, pick up the phone (you wouldn’t email for help in a personal emergency, why do you take this route for work?). This removes employees’ feeling that they have to constantly check their inboxes for anything urgent. If it's not urgent enough for a phone call, then it can wait until office hours. 

You could also consider using task management programmes like Asana (or these alternatives) that allow you to comment on specific tasks or workflows. You can add your thoughts on the fly, and your team member can check them when they log on in the morning. 

Set some ground rules

Explain to your team what the expectations are in terms of communicating outside of work hours. Just because midnight emailing works for you, doesn't mean they need to be checking their phones 24/7. Make it clear that you don't expect an immediate response, and make clear how you will communicate in an emergency - for example, a phone call or text message. 

Set reminders

If something pops into your head in the middle of the night, rather than going straight to your inbox to send out an email, jot down a reminder to deal with it in the morning.

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