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Email Overload and Understanding Why Less is More

In today’s hyper connected world, email has become more than just a communication tool but rather an all-encompassing task center. Email now has the capacity to take over our lives and psychologists have even given the phenomena a formal name; email overload.

Perhaps you don’t need an introduction to email overload though, as many of us are already more than familiar with it. Gone are the days when email represented a leap forward for in-office productivity. The speed, ease and scope of communication via email was, once upon a time, unlike anything that had been seen before. It was a wonderful thing.

However, email as a communication tool has come back to bite us. We now live in a culture of constant connection. In the business world this is reflected in an “always on” work culture, one in which employees are routinely expected to monitor and respond to emails during non-work time, even when on vacation. And this is all affecting employee wellness, whether you realize it or not.

Email overload is about more than just the ever increasing number of emails employees receive. It is directly linked to the anxieties people feel when called to handle (i.e. action on) messages. Each message represents another demand on their time and another decision to make.

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So, when receiving messages at all times during the day, in the evenings and on weekends, long after they have departed from the office — time when they are supposed to be away from work  –  these feelings of anxiety and stress follow them. And with the average employee receiving over one hundred emails a day, that’s a whole lot of anxiety.

What Research Says About Email Overload

The prevalence of email overload has spurred interesting research bringing to light the serious impact our inboxes can have on employees, both mentally and physically: A study conducted at the University of California at Irving found that taking away employees’ emails for five days significantly reduced their stress levels, measured by heart-rate monitors, and allowed employees to focus far better.

Another study from Loughborough University monitored heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels in saliva and found that 83% of workers became stressed by using email. What makes these findings even scarier is that only 14% of these individuals actually reported increased stress levels.

This means most people didn’t recognize that they were increasingly stressed, or perhaps what is more troubling is that the stress had become so normalized they thought it was a regular response. Either way, it has been proven there is a direct link between workplace stress and email use.

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When it comes to the specific case of “always on” work cultures and stress levels, the study found that this culture may prevent employees from ever fully disengaging from work, leading to chronic stress and emotional exhaustion.

Shockingly, the study also found “even during the times when there are no actual emails to act upon, the mere norm of availability and the actual anticipation of work create a constant stressor that precludes an employee from work detachment.” So, simply employees’ expectation of responding to emails in their off-hours is enough to cause negative health outcomes.

The research concludes by calling on managers to enforce organizational practices that will help mitigate these negative effects and to help protect the wellness of employees.

Less Email = More Focus

When it comes to focusing, the research bore out: less email is better. The study at UCI found that employees with email switched between their computer browser windows an average of 37 times per hour, while those without email changed tabs about half as often — about 18 times per hour. Even for those who work in a job where email is not their primary responsibility, checking and responding to emails each day can take away from whatever their primary work is, resulting in less productivity overall.

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What The French Did About Email Overload

One country that has already taken the negative outcomes of email overload very seriously – seriously enough to create litigation around it – is France. In 2017 the government enacted the 'right to disconnect'.

This is a legal measure that mandates that any company with over fifty employees must create a business wide policy that ensures that work is not allowed to spill over into out of office hours. Including no email. And while such things are unlikely to ever become law in the US tackling the problem of email overload is something that any employer concerned about employee wellness should find a way to do.

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