One of the few silver linings of the pandemic is that many knowledge workers now have more control over their schedules. Want to go for a run at lunch and work for an hour after your kid goes to bed? With (not psychotically micromanaged) remote work, there's nothing stopping you. 

But a new study from a pair of researchers suggests you may still want to think twice before using that newfound freedom to shoot off emails to your colleagues at all hours. You might think you're just using the late night quiet to clear out your inbox, but recipients often misjudge how urgently you expect a reply, leading to a ton of unnecessary stress. 

The level of this misunderstanding is the bad news from the study. The good news for those with night owl email habits is there is also an easy but impactful fix once you're aware of the trouble. 

Your late night missives are more stress-inducing than you think. 

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Laura Giurge of the London Business School and Vanessa Bohns of Cornell lay out the findings from a paper they recently published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. For the series of studies, they polled more than 4,000 workers about their understanding of the urgency of out-of-hours emails and uncovered a massive gap between senders and recipients. 

"We consistently found that receivers overestimated the need for a fast response--something we call the 'email urgency bias,'" they say, summing up the results. 

That seems handy to know, but not exactly earth-shattering. At least until you read on and learn just how much recipients are stressed out by the misunderstanding. 

"We found that, on average, receivers assumed they needed to respond 36 percent faster to off-hours work emails than senders expected. What's more, the receivers reported feeling more stressed by off-hours work emails than senders expected them to feel, and the stress associated with this unnecessary pressure resulted in lower subjective well-being," the researchers report. To put that more succinctly, this mismatch in expectations is really stressing people out. 

Add one sentence to your after hours emails. 

The article goes on to dig into what quirks of the human brain are likely responsible for the problem. It's well worth a read if you're interested in a deeper dive into the science, but likely more important for time-pressed bosses is the practical takeaway of the research. Helpfully, it's both simple and easy. 

"One thing that can help to eliminate such miscommunication is making one's assumptions explicit," the researchers write. Simply adding the phrase "This is not an urgent matter so you can get to it whenever you can" to emails completely eliminated the problem, they found. They go on to suggest alternate language you could also use to better set expectations: 

  • "Even though I'm sending this email outside regular work hours, which fits my own work-life schedule best, I don't expect a response outside of your own work hours."

  • "Note that you might receive this message outside of my office hours, but that I have no expectation to receive a message outside of your office hours."

  • "Please know that I respect boundaries around personal time. If you receive an email from me during your personal time, please protect your time and wait to respond until you are working. It's important that we all prioritize joy over email whenever possible."

And on the odd chance that an off-hours email is actually urgent, that should be communicated in no uncertain terms too, perhaps with all-caps "URGENT" or a message in red font. 

The point isn't to discourage workers from sending emails at off hours. The ability to fit your work around your life is one of the biggest perks of our new reality. Just be mindful of the likelihood of misunderstanding and make sure that while you're choosing to work at weird times you in no way intend to suggest others should follow suit.