Everyone deserves to disconnect

Erinn Beth Langille

Studies show that after-work emails cause stress and anxiety, even if you don’t open them. The same goes for school-related emails, and emails from your fraternities, sororities, extracurricular activities and clubs.

We all send and receive emails, and we usually do it whenever we feel it necessary, or when it is convenient for us. We don’t always think much about how it affects the receiver. However, when the expectation is that you are available all the time, the borders between work and rest erode. Creativity and connection suffer, and we actually lose ideas and productivity.

One study, titled “Killing Me Softly: Electronic Communications Monitoring and Employee and Spouse Well-Being,” was co-authored by William Becker, an associate professor at the Virginia Tech Pamplin College of Business.

“Every time you check your email or glance at your phone to see if you have an email or other communication, your brain actually shifts back to work mode,” said Becker. “And so what can happen is you can get stuck in work mode all the time.”

But work mode doesn’t actually mean being productive. Studies, like those on the default mode network of the brain done by Mary Helen Immordino- Yang and her coauthors at the University of Southern California, show that the generative moments in the creation of a project, the best or new ideas around one’s work, often come when the mind is otherwise at rest, or in ‘non-work mode’. We are unable to focus on problem-solving and creative tasks when the minutia of emails floods the line. This isn’t to say that one should ignore responsibilities or skip work, but optimizing productivity often means working fewer hours, more intensely.

On Jan. 1, 2017, France established a law that protected workers’ “right to disconnect.” Companies with more than 50 employees have hours when staff should not send or answer emails. The aim was to help employees be fairly paid, as their work is confined to recognizable hours, and prevent the burnout from incessant connection by increasing private time.  

What about the emails students send to professors, in a panic at 2 a.m. the night before the assignment is due? The tone of these emails is often overly casual, demanding or downright disrespectful, but it is especially dismissive of the professor’s life and time when the email comes in at a witching hour. Professors often have research or writing work of their own to do in the off-hours of school, as well as their family and social lives to consider.

Professors should be able to disconnect from student and administrative demands for certain hours of the day. Teaching assistants and adjunct faculty are particularly at risk of abuse and burn out because they are paid little, their jobs are insecure, and they usually carry other personal workloads.

Students can feel overwhelmed by the combination of school and extracurricular activities. A limit on the times emails can be sent or received by school, professors and classmates can help, as well as limits put on extracurricular email communication.

Is it vital to email the event coordinator at 1 a.m. that the group went with green instead of yellow balloons, when they have a meeting with the coordinator the next day?

The fear of failing, disappointing people or even retribution infects the downtime of students. Breaks from email could actually help students get much-needed rest, increase brain function, and strengthen connection with family and friends. A 12-hour window of time that is email-free would help students and professors with productivity, creativity and connection.