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Why You Shouldn't Email Your Advisor Back Right Away

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Why You Shouldn't Email Your Advisor Back Right Away

Grad students have a hard time keeping the lines between school and home separate. When your advisor finally emails you back, it feels like you need to be ready no matter what you’re doing. However, given what we know about work-nonwork conflict, grad students should proceed with caution.

How Work-Nonwork Conflict Can Be a Downer
Allowing work-related activities to creep into your home life can lead to more stress and less overall well-being. There is a negative relationship between feeling positive emotions and using your phone to do work at home (Ohly & Latour, 2014). In other words, the more you use your phone to do work at home, the less positive you feel in general. Technology use at home is also negatively related to feeling psychologically detached from work (Park, Fritz, & Jex, 2011). Translation? You literally bring your work home with you. And rather than feeling like you’re at home, you feel like you’re at work. It’s not just a one-way street, either. Using communication technology can lead to negative effects at home as well as at work. The more people use communication technologies, the more likely aspects of work interfere with aspects of home and vice versa (Berkowsky, 2013).

How Your Advisor Contributes to Work-Nonwork Conflict 
If we assume that previous research on employees and supervisors is applicable to grad students and their advisors, then your advisor’s expectations can affect your levels of work-home interference. One study found that supervisors’ expectations predict their employees’ work-home interference levels (Derks, van Duin, Tims, & Bakker, in press). If employees reported that their supervisor expected them to respond to work messages after hours, they were more likely to report high levels of work-home interference (Ohly & Latour, 2014). There was a caveat to this effect, however. If you’re motivated to do work after hours because you enjoy it, you won’t suffer. But, when you feel like you’re under your boss’ thumb, your positive feelings will decrease and negative feelings will increase.

Type of After-Hour Email Communication Matters
If you've already gone home for the day and you receive a work-related email, you are likely to feel angry when that email is tinged with a negative tone or requires a lot of your time (Butts, Becker, & Boswell, in press). If the email is worded in a positive tone, you're likely to feel happy, but that happiness seems to go away much quicker than does the anger felt after a negatively worded email.  The researchers based their findings off of surveying 341 working adults over a 72-hour period of time.  They also found that there are two types of people: segmentors and integrators. Segmentors want to keep their personal lives separate from work, whereas integrators don't mind the work interference into their nonwork lives. Unsurprisingly, segmentors were most negatively affected by after-hour emails. Integrators were angry, as well, when receiving a negatively-worded or time-consuming email, but integrators' responses did not interfere with their personal lives.   

What Your Family Thinks Matters, Too

Your spouse or romantic partner can also influence how detached you feel from work. If your romantic partner prefers to keep work and home separate, you’ll likely keep the two separate, as well (Hahn & Dormann, 2013). If there are children in the home, one parent’s preference has less of an effect on the other parent’s detachment levels. It appears that kids serve as a buffer between the two parents. With kids around, parents spend less time together and are, therefore, not as affected by each other’s behavior than they would be if it was just the two of them. Regardless, detaching from work (or school) is a good thing, because it prevents work-related stress from creeping into your home, affecting both you and your family.

What This Means for Grad Students
Grad students often need to drop whatever their doing, because they are on their advisor's time. This urgency, however, can lead to problems with graduate work spilling into nonwork activities. It may take some time to retrain yourself to ignore, shut off, or put away the blinking, dinging, and buzzing of your phone. But doing so may enable you to take some more time for yourself, your friends, and your family.

References

Berkowsky, R. W. (2013). When you just cannot get away: Exploring the use of information and communication technologies in facilitating negative work/home spillover.Information, Communication, & Society, 16, 519–541. doi: 10.1080/1369118X.2013.772650
Butts, M., Becker, W., & Boswell, W. (in press). Hot buttons and time sinks: The effects of electronic communication during nonwork time on emotions and work-nonwork conflict. Academy of Management Journal. doi: 10.5465/amj.2014.0170
Derks, D., van Duin, D., Tims, M., & Bakker, A. B. (in press). Smartphone use and work-home interference: The moderating role of social norms and employee work engagement. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology. doi: 10.1111/joop.12083
Hahn, V. C., & Dormann, C. (2013). The role of partners and children for employees’ psychological detachment from work and well-being.Journal of Applied Psychology, 98, 26–36. doi: 10.1037/a0030650
Ohly, S., & Latour, A. (2014). Work-related smartphone use and well-being in the evening. Journal of Personnel Psychology, 13, 174–183. doi: 10.1027/1866-5888/a000114
Park, Y., Fritz, C., & Jex, S. M. (2011). Relationships between work-home segmentation and psychological detachment from work: The role of communication technology use at home. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 16, 457–467. doi: 10.1037/a0023594

 

Image used with permission by CatLane via iStockphoto .

I am a social scientist and statistical consultant. I love traveling with my husband (especially road trips) and trying new foods. In addition to playing video games, I also like to knit and crochet.

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