21 September 2017Last updated

Features | People

How to stop work emails taking over your life

How often should we be checking our email after work hours? The French have passed a law to limit how much bosses can ask of their staff – but what can the rest of us do? Colin Drury finds out

Colin Drury
17 Feb 2017 | 12:00 am
  • Source:Supplied

It is a feeling that too many of us are familiar with: just as we sit down to relax for the evening, our mobile pings and an urgent work email arrives.

Should we read it? 
Should we answer it? Should we do the spreadsheet it’s asking for because, after all, we’ll be busy on other tasks tomorrow?

More than a third of us reckon we have faced this dilemma. Some 36 per cent of employees say they regularly receive messages or calls from their bosses out of office hours. One in every 10 workers, according to the 2013 survey by global recruitment giant Manpower, reckon even their annual leave has been interrupted by professional demands.

‘The only time I suppose I truly log off is when I go to sleep,’ says Andreas*, a consultant with a major international IT firm. ‘Other than that, there is an unspoken expectation within the company that you’re constantly aware of what’s coming in and available to deal with anything that has a certain level of importance.’

It is a universal phenomenon caused by the growth of mobile devices, which puts us always in reach. But it is also a phenomenon that, experts say, is particularly pronounced in the UAE.

The personal professional drive of many employees here; the innate ambition of the country’s business sector; and the fact that so many firms deal across global time zones – from Asia in the east to the US in the west – all mean a culture has developed where staff are expected, to a greater or lesser extent, to be available whenever needed.

‘There’s that cliché that you work hard and play hard in the UAE,’ says Andreas, who arrived from Germany four years ago. ‘That’s true. But I know, for me personally – and a lot of friends – even when you’re “playing”, you’re always aware you could be called on at any moment. You never switch off.’

But is this expectation on staff fair? Is the blurring of lines between work and personal space healthy – either for the individual or for the company itself? And, perhaps most importantly, in a year when the French government has enacted a ‘right to disconnect’ law, which will limit the emails workers can receive out of hours, should staff here in the UAE also be looking to reaffirm their rights to log offline?

Andreas was on annual leave when he first realised the level of expectation that came with an internal promotion. ‘I was visiting family back in Europe,’ he says. ‘And in 11 days off, I had to answer emails on seven of them and spend a couple of separate mornings dealing with a pretty major client about new software that was being introduced.

‘I was new to the job and it was sort of implied it was a busy period and it would be appreciated if I went above and beyond. But it’s been 18 months now and that busy period has never ended.’

He doesn’t mind most of the time, he says. He accepts it is part of being paid well. But, just occasionally, he wonders if his bosses aren’t taking advantage? After a year and a half, he feels that such constant connection is taking its toll.

‘I’m not a whiner – come on, I’m German,’ he smiles. ‘But I have noticed I don’t sleep so well, and I think maybe I snap more than I did. My temper seems shorter.’

He is, it seems, far from alone.

Overuse of digital devices – particularly those connected with professional lives – is increasingly blamed for all manner of modern ills. Burnout, stress, insomnia, obesity and even faltering relationships have all been named as consequences of being continually plugged in. The need to always be alert has been shown to impair the body’s immune system, meaning it can lead to feelings of being generally rundown and fatigued.

Too many employees, argues French lawmaker Benoit Hamon, ‘leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash – like a dog.’

It is for this reason that, last month, France enacted its ‘right to disconnect’ law. Under this ruling, companies are obliged to ensure work emails do not unnecessarily intrude into employees’ private lives. Firms will be required to publish a charter making explicit both the expectations from, and rights of, their staff out-of-hours.

For Amelie Zegmout, a French citizen working for a French multinational in the UAE, this legislation is undoubtedly a positive thing.

As general manager at Legrand, which supplies electrical systems to the construction industry, she both receives out-of-hours emails from her bosses, and admits sending messages to her staff too. She will regularly still be dealing with her inbox at 10pm.

‘I should make clear I do not feel obliged to do this by the company, there is no expectation,’ says the 36-year-old, who 
has lived in Dubai for 18 years. ‘It is a choice because, for instance, when I am dealing with the head office in France, it is easier to have email exchanges or make conference calls during French office hours. Or, when you are working with customers in the UAE, these are big clients and they have big demands, and that sometimes means having to deal with queries quickly.’

Nonetheless, she thinks a law reducing email use could improve work-life balance. ‘One of the reasons you deal with customers when they have certain demands is because if you don’t, a competitor might,’ she says. 
‘If that differential was taken away there would be less pressure on everyone to work out of hours.

‘It’s about society restructuring expectations and culture. And, actually, I think that would very much fit in with the happiness initiatives, which are a priority here.’

It is not just staff who feel an appropriate work-life balance is important either.

Among business owners in the UAE there tends to be an agreement that well-rested, refreshed workers are better workers. Not slaving long into the night means being more productive during the day. Research paper after research paper has shown that if staff are happier and content then retention rates are hugely improved – a particularly key issue in the expat-heavy UAE.

‘I think most enlightened employers would want their workers to be taking the time to disconnect from work, and come in fresh the next day,’ says Ivor McGettigan, partner and expert in employment law at Al Tamimi & Company, one of the Middle East’s largest legal firms. ‘Placing unreasonable demands on employees out of hours results in losing staff that a company has invested time and training in, because they feel the company is disorganised and doesn’t value their personal time.’

Yet, all that said, whether this should be enshrined in law is another question entirely.

Ivor, who is based in the company’s Abu Dhabi offices, thinks not. ‘It’s fair to say most reasonable employers in some fields might expect mid- to senior-level employees to keep an eye on emails,’ he explains. ‘But, crucially, they wouldn’t expect them to be sat at keyboards into the late hours every night of the week.

‘So it’s your classic case of common sense about what is reasonable for you and for the company,’ he says. ‘And a country should be reluctant to have policies on that because there is no one-size-fits-all solution. It’s very difficult to crystallise into a policy. Leaving it to the companies themselves results in more appropriate systems.’

There is another consideration here too. Sometimes staff themselves want to check emails. The millennial generation, in particular, often feels their identity is explicitly tied up with their jobs. For these people checking emails while off the clock is a way of life – and one they often enjoy.

‘I worked for a couple of design firms before going freelance,’ says Chris Lyon, who spent four years in Dubai and Sharjah. ‘The thing is, I love design. I spend my spare time messing about on projects and I tended to hang out with colleagues. My job is just an extension of who I am. I don’t mark it out into separate spheres. It’s part of my identity. So, of course, I work out of hours sometimes – why wouldn’t I?’

It is a good question – and also one that any legislation would need to address. Which means for now, it seems, it is a 
debate that, as mobile technology continues to increase our connectedness, is only set to grow.

How to deal with unwanted out-of-work emails

Most of us accept that sometimes we have to deal with work situations beyond office hours: this is called the 21st century. But what do you do if you feel your boss’s demands are unfairly intruding on your free time? We spoke to Ivor McGettigan, partner and expert in employment law at Al Tamimi & Company, about how to deal with the situation.

If you feel uncomfortable about the extent of post-6pm demands from your boss, what’s the first step to take?

It depends. I think if you’re getting an evening request to prepare something for the next morning, if that’s a one-off and it’s happened because of extraneous circumstances, then you should look at that and maybe accept it’s understandable. But if it’s happening regularly and it’s because of poor management then it’s an unfair intrusion. So the best approach, initially, would be an informal talk with the line manager just to say, you know, ‘I’m happy to help but certain requests I feel could have been dealt with during the working day’. The way to make that conversation work is be non-critical. Shape it in positives, like how you can be more effective and give things more attention if you receive them in a timely manner. Package it in a way that what you’re asking for benefits the firm.

If the line manager is unresponsive?

I think, often, they wouldn’t be. Especially in more enlightened companies, there is an understanding that well-rested staff are more efficient and productive. And the company would see regular out-of-hour demands as reflecting badly on the line manager making them. If that person is not controlling their own time, it raises questions about what else they’re not in control of. But if the line manager really is unresponsive or if that conversation feels too awkward, there is HR. But again, ensure you’re non-critical and emphasise your own willingness to be flexible where necessary.

What if the company dismisses these concerns?

It’s difficult here. Ultimately, the employee could make a claim for overtime. But if the company is unreceptive to that too, then the employee could file a complaint with the Ministry of Labour, which would send a representative to adjudicate.

How does that process work?

It’s called a grievance. The Ministry of Labour will appoint someone to investigate. It’s a non-binding ruling; the next step is to go to court. The courts are sympathetic to employees in this situation – if there is evidence – so it’s perfectly reasonable you could win. But, on a practical level, would I advise this? I think if you get to this stage and your employer isn’t listening, any victory is hollow. For your own happiness, it would be worth considering another job.

Colin Drury

Colin Drury