Stressed out about my increasingly fuzzy line between work and home, I queried human resources consultants for advice on managing after-hours email. I sent the emails last Friday at 8:30 pm.

One response came in three hours later: "As I send this at 11:32 pm on a Friday, I realize I can contribute quite a bit personally and professionally," wrote Corinne Jones, president of CJC Human Resource Services in New York.

Flex time, telecommuting, startups and side hustles have exponentially expanded our potential for professional growth.

They've also contributed to a culture of constant connection. Add in all the mobile gadgets that enable that connection, and you've got an ever-bleeding work-life balance boundary. One of the most common causes? Sending, receiving and checking emails during non-work hours. 

A recent study, Exhausted But Unable to Disconnect, shows that simply thinking about after-work email is causing us stress.

In France, it's legal for employees to ignore work-related emails when they're not on the clock.

German law prohibits managers from emailing employees outside of work hours, except in emergencies.

Short of moving abroad, how can you head home from the office (or coffee shop) and make sure your inbox doesn't tag along? Here are five hints:

1. Start Small.

Pick one email-free weekend day, or one email-free evening a week, and try your best to stick to it. Even just part of an evening. Say, Wednesdays from 7-10 pm.

The researchers who found that worrying about work email is enough to cause stress, also found that setting aside non-email time can relieve that stress.

When you feel the urge to check your inbox during your email black-out period, use mindfulness to simply notice that urge. Don't beat yourself up for having the feeling, just acknowledge it. But instead of giving into the pull, ask yourself this question: "What would I rather be doing in this moment?"

2. Know the law.

If you have hourly employees, you're legally obligated to pay them overtime if they work more than 40 hours per week. That includes after-hours email.

Chantal Mariotti, founder of Executive HR Consulting Group in California, says many startups don't realize that time spent on email counts as time spent at work, and it can get them into trouble.

She advises businesses to set clear policy guidelines and make sure non-exempt employees record their after-hours email time.

"If I'm hourly, and I wake up in the middle of the night, I'm going to check email," says Mariotti. "If I respond, I have to get paid."

But keep in mind that only applies to hourly employees. If you're in a salaried management role, Mariotti says, you're not legally entitled to overtime pay.

"I'm an owner of a company and I've had clients email me on Thanksgiving morning and I respond," she says. "That's life."

3. Consider removing the temptation.

Some businesses adopt policies prohibiting after-hours email. Others use technology to track time. Others take it a step further, with software that removes employee email access during non-work hours.

Employees at AccountingDepartment.com, an outsourced bookkeeping business, can't even get work email on their phone. The company restricts email access to times when employees are logged on to the company server and working. Any emails that come in after an employee logs out for the day are handled the next morning.

"If you really want your employees to feel like they aren't responsible for working when they're not, remove the opportunity," says AccountingDepartment.com co-founder Bill Gerber.

4. Have the cost-benefit conversations.

If you're a solopreneur, it's all about figuring out what works for you and your clients. If you have employees, experts recommend raising the after-hours email issue during the hiring process. Setting ground rules and expectations ahead of time can stave off resentment later on.

Some people might actually prefer working at night, either because that's when they're more productive, or they need the flexibility during the day.

"If you're answering emails at 10 pm, that might allow you to pick up your kids at 3 in the afternoon," says Jones, the human resources agency president.

5. Avoid mixed messages.

If you promote a culture that values work boundaries, but you email employees on weekends, they'll clue in to the contradiction.

Shonna Waters of the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) says her organization stresses the importance of work-life balance. But an employee pointed out in a survey that managers were working late, sending emails to employees along with unintentional pressure to work extra hours.

SHRM's solution? Managers could draft those late-night emails, as long as they set up a delayed auto-send within regular business hours.

"Employees are watching for the subtle signals," Waters says, "including a timestamp."

So whether you choose delayed auto-send, an email-free evening, time tracking tools or overtime pay, know that you have options for deleting after-hours anxiety from your inbox.

Published on: Oct 27, 2017