For many of us, work can often seep into what should clearly be leisure time. An estimated 59 percent of employed Americans report performing some kind of work-related activity on their phones after normal business hours.

Answering emails and dealing with other such demands during off-hours, especially over a long period, can be stressful. But according to researchers at Virginia Tech (VT), it's not just the action, but even the mere expectation of monitoring work-related emails can harm our health.

Findings of the study titled “Killing me softly: electronic communications monitoring and employee and significant-other well-being” will be presented at the Academy of Management annual meeting in Chicago taking place during Aug. 10-14.

Over 100 employees who worked for at least 30 hours per week were surveyed by researchers, apart from a similar number of managers and significant others. 

It was found even just being expected to check work email during non-work hours triggered feelings of stress and anxiety. The harmful effects were observed in employees as well as their partners.

"Some employees admitted to monitoring their work email from every hour to every few minutes, which resulted in higher levels of anxiety and conflict between spouses," said co-author William Becker, an associate professor of management in the Pamplin College of Business at VT.

The finding is reminiscent of a 2017 study which suggested just being near your smartphone can be distracting and affect brain power. This makes it harder to relax and to be mindful i.e. the psychological process of paying attention to the present moment.

The consequences of the "always on" organizational culture are often ignored or disguised as benefits. Becker noted how workers may be told they would have better convenience, higher autonomy, and more control over work-life boundaries this way.

"Our research exposes the reality: 'flexible work boundaries' often turn into 'work without boundaries,' compromising an employee's and their family's health and well-being," he said.

The “right to disconnect” bill was proposed by New York Councilman Rafael Espinal Jr. earlier this year. As the name suggests, the bill would allow private employees in New York to disconnect during non-work hours and free them from any such obligations to glance at their inbox.

If passed, it would be the first law of its kind in the United States, where burnout is quite common given the work culture. To avoid damaging mental health and risking burnout, the researchers urged employers to manage their expectations.

Clear policies should be designed to allow employees to spend their time at home without the burden of work emails weighing on their mind. Mindfulness training could also be provided to those who need it.