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E-Mail and Stress in the Workplace

By on October 13, 2014 – 10:50 am  5 Comments

Geoff Fallon, J.D., LL.M., LL.M., is a retired attorney who has been self-studying positive psychology for three years. He is writing a book entitled 16 Proven Ways to Get Happier at Work: Even When You Can't Change Your Company, Boss, Co-workers or Customers, which is based largely upon positive psychology. Full bio.

Geoff's articles for PositivePsychologyNews.com are here.



According to a 2012 McKinsey study reported by Chui and colleagues, employees on average spend 28% of their workday reading and responding to e-mail. Digging deeper into the amount of e-mail usage, Jennifer Deal describes a 2013 study that surveyed a group of executives, managers and professionals (EMPs) and found that 60% of EMPs with smartphones are connected (primarily via e-mail) for 13.5 hours or more per workday and spend about five hours connected during the weekend. This amounts to a 72-hour workweek.

In response to this hyper-connectedness the German automaker Daimler (maker of Mercedes-Benz) provides vacationing employees with an unusual extension to the automatic out-of-office response. As usual, the response states the employee is on vacation and provides an alternative contact person. But then, the Daimler system goes a step further and “poof” the sender’s e-mail is automatically deleted from the vacationer’s inbox. Daimler’s intent is to let the employee “come back to work with a fresh spirit.” Volkswagen and Deutsche Telekom also have policies that limit e-mails.

Empirical Evidence

While it may appear intuitively obvious that 72 hours per week of connectedness produces stress, some researchers at tje University of California Irvine conducted an empirical study of e-mail where, among other things, they closely monitored EMPs at work using e-mail and then during an absolute no e-mail period. The test subjects wore heart rate monitors during both the e-mail and no e-mail periods in order to directly measure their stress levels throughout the workday. The researchers also installed a custom-designed, activity logging application on each participant’s computer in order to measure both the frequency and duration of each participant’s computer window switches.

The empirical conclusions of this study are not surprising. The data collected shows a “very strong trend” of more stress on participants during e-mail usage versus non-usage. As to multitasking, during the no-email period participants had their computer windows open “for a significantly longer duration before switching to another window” as compared to the e-mail period. Bottom line, EMPs without e-mail had lower stress, multitasked less, and spent more time on individual tasks.

Qualitative Findings

The qualitative findings of this study are not as clear-cut as the empirical evidence.

During the no-email period all participants reported more personal contact with other people, both face-to-face and by telephone, and consistently reported that without e-mail they felt more relaxed and focused.

On the other hand, nearly all participants felt e-mail is double-edged. It is stressful, but it allows them to work remotely and leave work, for example, to attend a child’s activity. 24/7 e-mail also allows EMPs to quickly respond to genuine emergencies at work. But, about half the participants in the UC Irvine study felt a loss of agency at work. That is, they were not in control of their e-mail and hence not in control of their work. “The dark side of 24/7 connectivity that comes with the flexible workplace is that people feel they are always on, never done.” Interestingly, most EMPs who feel this dark side “blame their organizations for this – not their smart phones.” They blame it on poor management.

Suggestions for Reducing E-Mail Stress
Reducing e-mail lowers stress, promotes more verbal interaction, reduces multitasking, and increases task focus. The benefits are readily apparent, so it behooves both organizations and employees to deeply understand their e-mail usage and then, depending upon the nature of their e-mail problems, adopt some of the policies below.

  • Set up an overnight out-of-office auto response that states the employee will be unavailable, for example, from 6 PM till 6 AM except for emergencies, and emergencies must be identified as such in the subject line.
     
  • Avoid checking email when on the phone. It is easy to discern when the person on the other end of a phone call is checking his or her e-mail. This is particularly pernicious in client or customer phone calls, so organizations are likely to increase client and customer satisfaction if they institute this policy.
     
  • Use the phone or speak face-to-face instead of drafting an e-mail. Some organizations have written policies encouraging this for client and customer communications. Of course employees need to use judgment about whether a written record of the exchange is required.
     
  • Vet your inbox and only open the e-mails that enhance your productivity and your organization’s goals. For many people, this means taking advantage of the unsubscribe links that appear in newsletters and forum mailings.
     
  • Set specific times to check e-mail, and only check during such times. If you are concerned about responsiveness to emergencies, you could set up intermediate times when you briefly scan the subject lines and only open emails that appear to be emergencies.
     
  • To make this work for other people, convey accurate information in the subject line. The receiver should be able to tell at a glance whether your email is an emergency or not and whether a response is required or not.

 


 
Resources
Chui, M. et al, (2012). The social economy: Unlocking value and productivity through social technologies. Report, McKinsey Global Institute, 2.

Deal, J. J. (2013). Always On, Never Done? Don’t Blame the Smartphone. White Paper, Center for Creative Leadership, 1-2.

Mark, G. J., Voida, S., & Cardello, A. V. (2012). A Pace Not Dictated by Electrons: An Empirical Study of Work Without Email. Association for Computing Machinery.

Thompson, C. (Aug. 28, 2014). End the Tyranny of 24/7 Email. The New York Times.

Photo Credits: via Compfight with Creative Commons

28% of office workers day spent on email and other messages courtesy of Will Lion
Familiar email posture courtesy of larskflem
Connecting computers courtesy of ganderssen1
Multitasking even at email courtesy of occhiovivo

5 Comments »

  • I started to read this article while on a call. Then promptly shut my email off and decided to respond later! Thanks for the thoughtful article and research. I think that we may all need to set boundaries regarding email (myself included).

    Here is a good webinar on the topic coming up (and it’s free) on October 23rd at 12 noon EDT:

    http://positivebusinessdc.com/upcomingevents/setting-boundaries/

    Thanks again,
    Shannon

  • Senia says:

    Shannon! That’s awesome!

    Geoff, I’ve often thought of email as a way in which I do my work, but I was just listening to a Chris Brogan (www.chrisbrogan.com) webinar, and he clearly distinguishes that email is not work. He does email when he’s in line at the grocery store or taking a break. He makes sure to structure the day first and get some tasks done – before ever looking at email in the morning.

    Geoff, this is really neat:
    >>>>But then, the Daimler system goes a step further and “poof” the sender’s e-mail is automatically deleted from the vacationer’s inbox. Daimler’s intent is to let the employee “come back to work with a fresh spirit.”
    How often have all of us come back to 300 messages?

    Thanks, Geoff!

  • Geoff Fallon says:

    Shannon & Senia,
    Thank you for your comments which are insightful and appreciated.
    Best,
    Geoff

  • Geoff Fallon says:

    Senia,
    I think your reference to Chris Brogan’s theory that e-mail is “not work” has some validity. In my thinking about e-mail I find there is (or can be) an over-simplified approach to work by too much reliance on e-mail. For example, it’s much easier to send an e-mail to your boss than to walk into his or her office — they might not like what you have to say and let you have it right there and then; they might have no interest; might tell you it’s OK but not as good as someone else’s work. All these potential negatives are avoided or delayed by using e-mail rather than in person or to a lesser extent, the phone. Similarly, it’s easier to read this negative feedback in an e-mail than it is to face it in person and by starting the communication by e-mail one invites an e-mail response.

    Another example I saw often at work: Someone has done something wrong or missed a deadline — it is much easier to apologize by e-mail. OK, but at the same time, you’re not taking responsibility for what you did to the same extent as if you apologized in person, and you’re not giving the “offended” person as much of an opportunity to forgive you.

    Any other thoughts you may have will be appreciated.

  • Geoff Fallon says:

    The Wall Street Journal on deleting e-mails:

    Should Your Firm Automatically Delete Emails You Get on Vacation?
    Dan Ariely answers reader questions on overflowing inboxes and overspending on Black Friday.

    Does anyone really have more than 10 important things to say in a day? GETTY IMAGES
    By DAN ARIELY
    Nov. 21, 2014 3:18 p.m. ET

    Dear Dan,

    Recently, the German auto maker Daimler gave employees the option of automatically deleting all emails that arrive while they’re on vacation. Senders get a note suggesting that they resend their email later or write to other colleagues who are still in the office. This way, employees don’t have to face overflowing inboxes when they return. Is this a good idea?

    —Kathleen

    Not having to worry about email while you’re on vacation sounds wonderful, and this policy will probably boost employees’ well-being—though, of course, some will still wonder what they might have missed.

    That said, the Daimler approach seems pretty extreme, and it deals with the symptoms rather than the root problem. In my experience, email stresses people out constantly, not just during vacations. We get too much email every day of the year; we spend too much time responding to it and worrying about it. Email correspondence in many corporations is so out of hand that it leaves almost no time for any actual work.

    If the bosses at Daimler really care about their employees’ welfare, why not tackle the inefficiencies of this communication channel—and work to reduce their overall email load? How about announcing that no email is allowed between 9 and 11 a.m. and again between 1 and 3 p.m.? Or what if they limited people to just 10 emails a day? (Does anyone really have more than 10 important things to say in a day?)

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