Cornell University

January 9 2012

Detaching from Work

Wireless devices, emotional exhaustion and employer action

More than 1,000 Volkswagen workers in Germany no longer receive work emails during off-duty hours.

The new policy to cut employee burnout by reestablishing lines between work and home that wireless devices have blurred for decades also benefits employers, said Assistant Professor Beth Livingston.

"Burnout has very real consequences for employee mental and physical health, turnover and job satisfaction, so preventing emotional exhaustion from work is often of critical importance for employers," she said in an interview.

"Employee burnout is especially likely to occur as a result of work and family conflict, so it is critical that employees psychologically detach from work to recover," said Livingston, a member of ILR's Department of Human Resource Studies.

"Constant communication access to work can prevent this recovery from occurring and can result in employee burnout, and this stress can transfer to the employee's home relationships."

Employee burnout has been a growing issue in Europe, particularly in Germany, where soccer coach Ralf Rangnick resigned in September, citing exhaustion from work.

Before considering an action like the one Volkswagen took with some of its unionized German workers, employers should consult with workers, Livingston advised.

"They should consider the preferences of their employees -- whether they prefer segmentation of their work and family lives or integration -- and the costs/benefits of limiting email access for employees."