Open arms and inboxes

A new study out of Virginia Tech brings scientific proof to what many people likely knew instinctively—the expectation of checking work email after hours is harmful to the health not just of the workers, but also their families. What’s particularly noteworthy is that the expectation alone creates those problems, independently of whether the employee engages in the actual work during off hours.

We recently completed an email experiment at Collegewise. Two of our most senior executives charged with running the business were out for ten days on vacation simultaneously. And every one of us—over 50 Collegewisers—agreed to not send either of them a single email.

No questions with the caveat, “Just in case you check email.” No copying either of them on emails just to make sure they were in the loop. No requests, even with the tagline, “This can wait until you get back.” Nothing at all, for ten days.

And here’s what happened—nothing.

No vacation-induced emergencies. No calamitous missteps. No grinding to a halt of the progress we make every day. Work life went on as it always has.

It’s not that they aren’t both vital to our business—they’re indispensable. We just don’t need to communicate with each other 24/7.

To be clear, I’m not living in their inboxes and it’s certainly possible that there were emails that slipped through. But this misguided notion that any of us are so necessary that we must be connected to everyone else at all times is misguided at best and narcissistic at worst. And I’ll lump high school students into that conclusion, too. Your friends don’t need to know what you’re doing or thinking or eating every five minutes, and you don’t need to be immersed in their lives, either.

Yes, I know there are people who live and work with the reality that if they don’t answer the call during off hours, someone might die. Those are the exceptions to the availability rule. But for most of us, the exceptions just don’t apply.

Constant availability is not a badge of honor representing your commitment. It’s a scarlet letter representing either an inflated sense of importance or a lack of trust. So turn off and tune out regularly. Be proudly unreachable. Fill the time with what’s in front of you when the screens are all shut down and put away.

The people and the emails will be waiting with open arms and inboxes when you get back. But until then, we’re happy to wait.