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E-resilience: rein in email in four practical steps

Published 9th May 2017 by Investors in People
Email overload at work

Eresilience is about making technology work for us, rather than being negatively affected by it. We’ve discussed it before in our ebook on improving wellbeing to fuel performance.

It’s a key concept for our times because the amount of technology we use in our work lives is going up. At the same time, employees are expected to do more, with less. Making technology work for us is therefore fundamental to productivity.

And of all the technologies we use regularly at work, email has a lot to answer for in terms of its negative effects on our wellbeing and productivity.

Email: why is it so bad for us?

Email contributes to the multitasking problem

Firstly, it seems to always take priority. If we’re knee deep in something, and an email comes in, we’ll often just stop what we’re doing to deal with the email. This can happen throughout the day, constantly dragging us away from our important tasks and making it harder and harder to get back into ‘the zone.’

Email encourages hypervigilance

Hypervigilance is an “enhanced state of sensory sensitivity” that is very mentally draining. We become hypervigilant to new emails: the appearance of a pop up on our screens, or the ping of our smartphones that let us know something new has come in. We rush to see what the email is about. We seem to always be in a heightened state of alert.

Email damages us physiologically

Researcher Linda Stone has received recognition for her work on email apnea, or a temporary cessation of breathing when checking to see if we have received any new emails. Other researchers have linked the checking of emails to a dopamine-delivered reward hit, not unlike eating high-fat food or gambling.

Email stops us recuperating

The smartphone is a transformational tool. But having so much power in your pocket comes at a price. Research suggests being able to quickly check your email at any time, or having emails delivered automatically, “prompts signs of tension and worry.”

When we’re spending time with our kids, we quickly unlock our phones, swipe down and - bam - we’re in work mode. This constant shuttling between states means the brain never really recuperates from work: this continuous stress can lead to exhaustion.

And it’s not just the checking of email that’s problematic. A study out of Colorado State University found that it’s “anticipatory stress and expectation of answering after-hours emails that is draining employees.

Can we ban email? Err, no...

Gloria Mark, a researcher at the University of California, found that after taking away emails from people for five days their heart rates dropped.

But it’s not realistic to take away emails completely. Despite the talk of email killers like Slack or HipChat, email isn’t going anywhere soon. It’s too embedded in society and too embedded in the workplace.

And it’s the lowest common denominator - not everyone has moved to Slack or HipChat, but we can be pretty sure anyone we have to deal with in working life will have an email address.

But we have to do something.

Email overload: four practical steps to rein it in

Use batch delivery programmes

Batch delivery programmes store up emails sent to you and only put them into your inbox at designated times, for example every hour. This helps wean you off the constant hypervigilance of waiting for emails to appear and helps establish a healthier routine. You can focus on other tasks more easily.

If your employees use Gmail, this is easy, as there are multiple tools available, such as Batched Inbox. Organisations using their own email servers delivering to Outlook may need to use a server-side configuration here - but there is precedent. Volkswagen, for example, agreed in 2012 to stop sending emails to specific employees in the evening.

Even without batch delivery programmes, employees can freestyle it - just close your email programme and turn off notifications on your phone, and then just open the programme every hour or whenever you choose your email interval to be.

Add an explanatory note to your email signature

If you’re using a batch delivery programme or just choosing to check your emails less often, it’s worth adding a line to your email signature because sometimes other people's expectations around when you need to reply to their email (shouldn’t they just come and talk to you anyway?) can clash with your own.

For example: “I check my emails at 10am, 12pm and 2pm and generally send responses between 4pm and 5:30pm.”

Increase the distance between you and your emails

The easier it is for you to ‘quickly check’ your emails, the more they will stress you out. It’s a vicious cycle: you check your emails and your stress levels go up, making it more likely you’ll check your emails again impulsively.

Any boundaries you can put between you and your emails will help stymie this tendency. For examples, can you disable push notifications on your phone? Or remove the email app on your phone, forcing you to open a browser and sign in every time?

On your PC, you could remove all bookmarks to emails so it’s more than one click to access them.

Change expectations individually or across organisations

This step is much harder than the rest, but it’s very important. Organisations need to be aware that the constant email culture is having negative effects on productivity, stopping employees being able to switch off from work and recuperate at home, and therefore making their work lives less enjoyable.

It’s a societal problem, really, and organisations should take steps, both for the good of society, for the productivity and success of the organisation itself, and for the long-term happiness of individual workers.

We must ask the question: how can we adjust expectations of email use across the organisation? This could mean many things, such as:

  • Empowering people to check their emails a few times a day
  • Introducing new systems to avoid the use of email for internal communication
  • Offering training so people feel comfortable managing their emails in new ways
  • Helping people understand what tools and plugins are on offer to better manage their inboxes
  • Understanding what email is most used for internally and designing better systems so email can be avoided in the first place
  • Understanding how email is used externally to see if there are ways to reduce the use of email and improve communication with clients