As one of David Thielen’s sales engineers was being prepped for emergency gallbladder surgery last year, the engineer started to answer a support ticket on his smartphone.
“I said, ‘Cut off his domain access, now. I don’t care if it’s in the middle of the ticket,’” said Thielen, CTO and founder of Windward Studios, the creators of the new app Enforced Vacation, which pauses employees’ access to company email after work hours.
Thielen beta tested the app, which launched Wednesday, with his employees. He said they took a few days to understand that life would go on without nighttime emailing. One employee claimed he was actually shaking from the lack of email access during the first days of his vacation. (By the end of his trip, the shakes were gone and he was glad he’d been cut off.)
Making downtime a priority benefits both employees and the companies they work for. Clocking more hours actually makes people less productive, according to a 2011 paper by the International Labour Organization. And Stanford researchers have shown that overwork diminishes productivity for a number of reasons, including sleep deprivation, stress and depression.
“It’s actually in the self-interest of a company to do this,” Thielen said.
Remote access for workers also has its benefits, of course, allowing people more flexibility in their schedules and commutes. And a recent Gallup poll found that workers who regularly check email after work were more likely to report having better overall lives than those who never check email outside of work -- but that could be because higher-status, higher-paying jobs are usually the ones requiring the most connection. They might also require more of a commitment: the same poll also reported that workers who frequently check email outside of work hours are more stressed than those who don’t.
Enforced Vacation, which will cost $1 per worker per month after a one-month free trial period, does allow for situations where employees need to bring work home. While the aim is to make workers’ personal time completely their own, it’s possible for emails to be viewed and sent when crucial. If an email is marked "high priority" or has certain words in the subject line, such as “urgent,” it goes through.
Thielen said the company is working on getting the app out both in the U.S. and in Europe, where after-hours email bans are more common. Some French companies have adopted an after-hours email ban, which, contrary to rumors, is not a formal law. The German labor minister has commissioned a study on the impact of work-related stress, and the findings could bring about legislation that outlaws after-work email. Volkswagen takes an extreme approach and completely shuts off employees' email access at night.
Enforced Vacation provides some flexibility. The app can be temporarily disabled, but an administrator can override a user from making any changes when there’s no emergency.
“You can go, ‘Yes, they’re on vacation, and no, they’re not going to turn it off,’” Thielen said. “They are not going to get their email until they’re back from vacation.”
That functionality is called “Ryan mode,” named for the sales engineer who had to be forced to put his phone down as he entered surgery.