The Emotional Downward Spiral of Email

It seems crazy how long people have been unhappy about email, particularly business email, and yet it continues to be a major pain point. Email is and has been the number one time waster in offices, right next to meetings. A 2011 research paper (Barley, Myerson, and Grodel) calls email not only a source of stress, but “a symbol of overload.”

Some of the problems we think we see with email, however, are misleading. Volume might be the number one perceived issue. The more email we receive, the more stress it creates, right? That’s not what the researchers found:

“[The subjects] blamed communications-related stress exclusively on the volume of e-mail they handled and the extra time that e-mail added to their workday. We also found that processing e-mail bolstered their sense of being able to cope with their work. Yet our quantitative data show that other media also contributed to feelings of overload and that media-related stress appeared to be independent of workload.”

One of the main findings, in the end, is that email causes stress regardless of how much people work. If they work long hours dealing with email, it’s stressful. If they work short hours and fall behind on email, it’s stressful. Email is quite the emotional beast.

Why Do People Blame Email?

Why do people blame email when, as the researchers found, all kinds of media were really to blame? What is it about email that makes it an easy target?

“To understand why e-mail was the only medium that our informants blamed for the stress they experienced requires delving into how e-mail’s material properties interacted with the specific anxieties that e-mail evoked, the norms that governed its use, and the temporal distribution of communicative acts over the course of a day. … [I]t was the entangling of these factors that led informants to experience and interpret e-mail as stressful independent of how much time they worked.”

Email is Social and Emotional

Email relies on social interactions. When you receive an email, it means there’s a person who sent it. The sender may expect a response or action, anything ranging from a quick yes or no to the expectation that the receiver has retained new knowledge from reading the email that will inform future work. Failing to deliver that response or action in a timely fashion, i.e., not processing the email quickly, might mean letting down the sender or any number of other people who are relying on the response or action. Now multiply that by the dozens upon dozens of messages that a knowledge worker receives in a day; estimates put the average somewhere around 80 to 130 emails per day.

“Forty-five percent of our interviewees explicitly associated the volume of e-mail they received with a loss of control, which they articulated in terms of two anxieties: the fear of falling behind in ones’ work and the fear of missing important information. Both anxieties were tied to the technology’s asynchrony, which enabled people to send messages at any time without disturbing the recipient and which allowed messages to accumulate in the recipient’s inbox until processed.” [Emphasis mine.]

What’s Your Email Reputation?

Keeping up with email is seen as “being in control,” and if you feel that way about yourself, you probably have the same assumptions of your co-workers. Those who keep up with email are in control, which means everyone else suffers from a loss of control.

“Informants also worried that in the mass of unopened e-mail lay crucial information that, if missed, would affect their ability to stay on top of their work and threaten their aura of competence.”

Suddenly, missing an email affects not only the work, but also the employee’s reputation.

“Those who answered their e-mail quickly enhanced their reputation by doing so. As a senior manager explained, colleagues who were responsive were seen as ‘really sensitive’ and ‘really caring'”

Downward Spiral

All this fear can actually have an adverse effect. Around 75 percent of the subjects in this study refused to use filters and other tools designed to make email easier to manage because they were afraid it would cause them to miss an important message!

What’s most disturbing of all is that these emotions can lead to people essentially giving up and feeling disempowered:

“As a symbol, e-mail became the interpretive scapegoat for the workers’ perceptions that they were expected to do more than they could reasonably accomplish in a day.”

Let Go

For a years, when I’ve been asked to share my expertise on email, I’ve taken the stance that the best way to manage it is to not worry about it so much and to delete it in batches, rigorously. Some people prefer to archive, some like to ignore the inbox count, but if you’re not deleting the majority of the messages you receive every day, you’re not truly letting go of them.

It’s not a sexy answer. People hate hearing it. But it’s true. If you fall prey to the email emotional trap, it’s nothing but a downward spiral.


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

Image by Matthieu Sévère, CC.


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