A culture of being “always available” can have a devastating impact on the stress levels, work-life balance and job performance of those working within universities.
That was the central contention of Gail Kinman, professor of occupational health psychology at the University of Bedfordshire, when she addressed a symposium there on 8 January titled “Switching on and Switching off”: Building E-resilience for Work-life balance and Wellbeing.
Drawing on research conducted via an online survey and interviews with academics across the UK, she analysed their workload demands, schedule flexibility and email management. Many were highly engaged in their jobs, she argued, and used the flexibility granted them to work longer and harder, rather than to improve their work-life balance.
“A considerable proportion of academics saw their personal and work time as inextricably linked,” explained Professor Kinman, so “emails were read and replied to anywhere and any time”.
Yet this often led to “rumination about work problems” outside office hours, with “serious implications for wellbeing and job performance”. There was also “increasing evidence that email overload and lack of respite from ICT [information and communications technology] can lead to emotional exhaustion and cognitive failures”.
In response to these dangers, some of the academics interviewed by Professor Kinman admitted to making “contracts” with their families about when they could and could not access emails. Yet many still indulged in “masking” behaviour, where emails were read in secret, often leading to feelings of guilt and family conflict.
In conclusion, Professor Kinman emphasised “the need for academics to develop e-resilience”, noting that there was evidence that “limiting access to email can reduce stress”.