Tech it or leave it: Excessive email use and how to curb it
If there is a single behaviour in my life that borders on the pathological, it is the urge I feel to log on and check my emails. When I have no email access (such as when I am on a plane or am on holiday staying at a foreign beachside villa with no Wi-Fi) I function perfectly well but as soon as I know there is a Wi-Fi connection, the first thing I typically do is check my emails. It’s like an itch that I have to scratch. Given that the vast majority of my emails are work-related I don’t necessarily see this as problematic (as I love my work) but it does admittedly facilitate my workaholic tendencies. The psychology and psychosocial impact of email use is also an area that I have published a few articles and book chapters on (see ‘Further reading’ below).
The reason I mention all this is that earlier this month, many of the British newspapers featured a story about how turning off automatic emails helps reduce stress levels. The survey study of just under 2,000 individuals was carried out by psychologists at the Future Work Centre (FWC) and examined the impact of ‘email pressure’ on individuals’ work-life balance. The report noted that there were “2.5 billion email users worldwide, and adults spent an average of over an hour of each day on emails, according to Radicati and Ofcom”. The FWC’s main findings (which I have taken verbatim from the report) highlighted:
- A strong relationship between using ‘push’ email and perceived email pressure. This means that people who automatically receive email on their devices were more likely to report higher perceived email pressure.
- People who leave their email on all day were much more likely to report perceived email pressure.
- Checking email earlier in the morning or later at night is associated with higher levels of perceived email pressure.
- Managers experience significantly higher levels of perceived email pressure when compared to non-managers.
- Higher email pressure was associated with more examples of work negatively impacting home life and home life negatively impacting performance at work.
- Perceived email pressure is significantly higher in people with caring responsibilities. This finding is probably less of a surprise, as the work-life balance research literature is full of examples citing the challenges facing carers when it comes to navigating the boundaries between work and home. Interestingly, our data didn’t reveal any significant differences between people with different caring responsibilities. It seems that just having these responsibilities is associated with significantly higher email pressure.
- Personality appears to moderate the relationship between perceived email pressure and work-life balance. People who rate their own ability and sense of control over their environment lower find that work interferes more with their home life, and vice versa.
Clearly the benefits of email outweigh the disadvantages but as the FWC report noted, emails are a “double-edged sword” in that that they are clearly a useful communication tool but can be a source of stress. The report concluded that:
“[The results of the study] link perceptions of email pressure to actual work-life balance outcomes, not just perceptions of work-life balance. But that’s not the end of the story. Whilst we’ve identified the external factors that affect our perceived email pressure and explored the relationship between perceived email pressure and work-life balance, there’s another variable we should consider in order to increase our understanding of an individual’s experience of email – personality…Personality moderates the relationship between perceived email pressure and all work-life balance outcomes. It shows that people with low core self-evaluation experience more interference, both positive and negative, between their work and home lives – i.e. they are more sensitive to how the two domains – work and home – affect each other. This could be due to how people with low core self-evaluation make sense of their world. People with high core self-evaluation don’t see these things as happening to them – they can take control and set boundaries”.
The report also provided some tips to combat email stress many of which can be found in other articles examining the topic. For instance, back in 2004, I published my own set of tips in the British Medical Journal (not that I follow my own advice based on what I said in the opening paragraph of this article). However, I’ll end this blog with my (hopefully) common-sense and practical advice:
- Set retrieval limits: Limit email retrieval to a few times per day (say when you first get in, lunchtime, and/or just before you leave work). You will spend less time both reading and responding to each email than if you had read them when they individually came in.
- Turn off instant messaging system: There is a tendency to look at emails straight away if the instant messaging system is turned on. This is only helpful when you are expecting a message.
- Get a good spam filter: There is nothing worse than an inbox full of junk mail so invest in a good filter system.
- Use your ‘auto delete’ button: If there are constant junk emails that you get most days then use the ‘auto delete’ button to avoid them appearing in your inbox.
- Develop a good filing system: The setting up of a good email filing system is paramount in keeping on top of your emails. This is no different to the desktop management system on your computer. You can put unread messages into appropriate folders to read at a later time and reducing the size of your inbox. A good filing system also aids in retrieving important emails at a later date.
- Reply and file: Once you have replied to an email either delete it immediately or file it away in a separate email folder.
- Use your ‘out of office’ assistant facility: This will help reduce the repeated emails from the same people asking “Did you get my earlier email?” Once people know you are unavailable for a given time period they may not send the email in the first place.
- Print out hard copies of really important e-mails: There is always a chance that emails can get lost or accidentally deleted. If it is really important, print a hard copy straight away and file it.
- Be selective in who you respond to: When responding to an email sent to a group, don’t necessarily reply to all the group. This will cut down on the number of potential replies.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Byron, K. (2008). Carrying too heavy a load? The communication and miscommunication of emotion by email. Academy of Management Review, 33, 309-327.
Future Work Centre (2015). You’ve got mail: Research Report 2015. London: Future Work Centre. Located at: http://www.futureworkcentre.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/FWC-Youve-got-mail-research-report.pdf
Giumetti, G.W., Hatfield, A.L., Scisco, J. L., Schroeder, A.N., Muth, E.R., & Kowalski, R. M. (2013). What a rude email! Examining the differential effects of incivility versus support on mood, energy, engagement, and performance in an online context. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 18, 297-309.
Griffiths, M.D. (1995). Hey! Wait, just a minute, Mister Postman: The joy of e-mail. The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 8, 373.
Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Tips on…Managing your e-mails. British Medical Journal Careers, 329, 240.
Griffiths, M.D. & Dennis, F. (2000). How to beat techno-stress. Independent on Sunday (Reality section), May 7, p.22.
Sutton, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2003). Emails with unintended criminal consequences. The Criminal Lawyer, 130, 6-8.
Sutton, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Emails with unintended consequences: New lessons for policy and practice in work, public office and private life. In P. Hills (Ed.). As Others See Us: Selected Essays In Human Communication (pp. 160-182). Dereham: Peter Francis Publishers.
Ng, K. (2016). Turn off automatic email updates to ease stress, psychologists advise. The Independent, January 5. Located at: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/turn-off-automatic-email-updates-to-ease-stress-psychologists-advise-a6794826.html
Radicati, S. & Levenstein, J. (2014). Email Statistics Report, 2014-2018. Located at: http://www.radicati.com/?p=10644