People complain that email causes stress. But is there any scientific truth to the claim?
One team of researchers observed and interviewed employees of a company, asking them open-ended questions about email (Barley 2011) to see whether they would say it’s stressful without being prompted. They found that not only do workers find email stressful, but that it’s stressful regardless of how much they work. In other words, it’s not the amount of email that’s creating stress, but rather something about email more generally that does it.
Here’s an interesting tidbit: “Contrary to assumptions of prior studies, we found no evidence that time spent working mediates e-mail-related overload.” Put another way, people who work overtime to catch up on email aren’t lowering the stress they experience due to email. It’s still there even when we try to combat it by catching up on our inboxes.
A more interesting study actually had participants wear heart rate monitors (Mark 2012). I’ve written about this particular study on the effects of quitting email before. The researchers monitored a number of employees in a government office. Then a group of 13 employees voluntarily gave up their in-office email for a week. During this time, the email quitters experienced an increase in heart rate variability (HRV). HRV is related to overall health and fitness but is commonly used as a way to measure stress. With HRV, a higher number is better.
The researchers in this study correctly note that these results aren’t as strong as they could be because it’s really hard to control all the factors that influence HRV. HRV changes dramatically if a person is sick, sleeps poorly, has a strenuous workout the day before, or even drinks a different amount of caffeine than normal. But the results were enough for the team to suggest more studies of this kind.
What Can You Do?
A huge part of the solution to combatting the stress that email creates seems to be getting rid of email. A lot of evidence supports the fact that giving up email for stretches of time isn’t nearly as bad as most people assume it will be. And from my research, it seems that the obstacles are more cultural in nature than technical. I’ll cover this notion of cultural barriers in my next post.
Two strategies go hand in hand for making email less stressful.
First, people need to close email while they’re trying to get their most important work completed. Let’s call it a planned email break. During a planned email break, a person should focus on their task without being interrupted by notifications of incoming messages, and without the temptation of peeking at her inbox. These planned email breaks could be quite short, or they could span multiple days.
Second, when an employee resumes using email after a period of staying away from email, they should batch-process their messages to deal with them more efficiently and quickly. The study by Mark (2012) that I mentioned earlier reported that several employees who quit email for a week actually devised new strategies for deleting messages in bulk as a result, primarily because the messages were no longer relevant by the time the employees got to them. The emails’ relevancy had expired, which is to say that replying to them would have been moot. It is entirely possible that a good percentage of emails that employees receive indeed expire quickly and then can be deleted without much effort.
While culturally, people talk about “triaging” email and fighting fires, email may be a fire that, if left alone, simply burns itself out.
Barley, S., Myerson, D., & Grodel, S. (2011) E-mail as a source and symbol of stress. Organization Science 22(4): 887–906. Retrieved Jan. 22, 2016 from http://people.bu.edu/grodal/Email.pdf
Mark, G., Voida, S., and Cardello, A. (2012). A Pace Not Dictated by Electrons: An Empirical Study of Work Without Email Proceedings of CHI’12, 555-564. Retrieved from https://www.ics.uci.edu/~gmark/Home_page/Research_files/CHI%202012.pdf Dec. 22, 2015. doi 10.1145/2207676.2207754
Image by Justin C., CC.