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Email is constant and workers need to cope.
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updated 6/29/2012 10:03:20 AM ET 2012-06-29T14:03:20

Nearly two thirds of workers say their bosses email them over the weekend and expect a response, according to a survey run last year by Right Management, a division of staffing giant Manpower. The survey asked a single double-barreled question: Does your boss send you work-related emails during the weekend and expect you to respond? Less than half, 37 percent, answered “never.” Thirty-three percent said “often,” and 30 percent, “only from time to time.”

What should workers do about weekend emails from the boss?

Robert Hellmann, a career coach at the Five O’Clock Club, a career counseling firm, who also teaches career development at New York University, says it depends. If you are new to a job, you’d better answer immediately, he advises. “If you’re in a new position, you’ve got to become one with the job,” he says, “at least for the first six months.” By then, you will have established a reputation.

Next, reflect on the culture of your company and the nature of your boss’ request. Most workers know if a note requires an immediate answer. “I’m coaching a lawyer right now,” says Hellmann. “He can forget about not responding to emails on the weekend.” Suffering from burn-out, the lawyer is contemplating a job search, says Hellmann.

One possible coping mechanism, suggests Hellmann: Delay your answer for several hours. “That can take down the pressure,” he says. However, is you compare notes with colleagues and find that everyone else replies right away, you’d better do that too.

If you’re planning to be in a remote spot away from BlackBerry, phone or Internet access, do let your boss know ahead of time that you will be unreachable. The same rule applies to a family leave or a distant vacation: Communicate your unavailability before the fact.

Monika Morrow, a senior vice president at Right Management, also has some advice for bosses: “If you don’t have to send an email on the weekend, don’t send it,” she says. “Create it in draft form and hit ‘send’ on Monday morning.” Morrow emphasizes that workers need down-time. Weekends should be a time to re-energize, she says. When bosses expect employees to be constantly at attention, “you get productivity loss,” she says.

A new study by two communications professors supports Morrow’s contention. The study, covered by a Wall Street Journal blog post, looked at how telecommuters respond to emails and conference calls from their companies. Many bosses think it’s important to loop remote workers in on frequent communications, to make them feel part of things at the office. But the study, published in the National Communications Association’s June issue of Communications Monographs, found that rather than making telecommuters more productive, the emails and calls interrupted employees’ work flow and increased their stress levels.

The study polled 89 telecommuters and 104 office-based workers about how often they were in contact with colleagues and managers and how the contact affected their work. Both groups said that phone conversations were less stressful than emails and face-to-face meetings, possibly because calls are less common than emails. The study’s authors, Kathryn Fonner, an assistant professor of communications at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Michael Roloff, professor of communication studies at Northwestern University, recommend that bosses limit the number of emails they send to workers, and set up an environment where employees can work uninterrupted and choose to check in when they feel the need.

For now, the constant email barrage looks like it will continue unabated and workers simply need to cope. The irony is that frequent emails from the boss tend to make employees less, rather than more productive.

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© 2012 Forbes.com

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