18 Jan 2016

It’s time to rethink your email behaviour.

Three studies in a year point to negative health effects.

A new psychological study suggests a rethink of workplace behaviours around email use is needed, resetting expectations to reduce stress levels.

The research by Britain’s Future Work Centre surveyed 2000 workers on how they use email, uncovering several bad habits that could – at least culturally – be challenging to fix.

For individuals, the study recommends (among other things) switching off push email notifications to your smartphone, only launching your desktop email when you want to use it, and to stop checking early morning or late at night

For organisations, it proposes careful consideration of email policies and enforcement, particularly by executives and other role models.

“Are your senior leaders role-modelling good email behaviour? Are they sending late night and weekend emails? Are they using inappropriately harsh language or using email as their only communication tool? Are they simply spending too long dealing with their email in the first place?” the Future Work Centre study notes.

“It will be more difficult to instil good email practices if employees don’t have positive senior role models. Start at the top and lead by example.”

This study is but the latest in a growing body of psychology around email.

Much previous work has centred on the concept of email overload – that is, the potential that the sheer volume of email can overwhelm its recipient.

An interesting – though not fully-researched – aspect of the Future Work Centre study is that it found only a “weak relationship” between email volume and perceived stress. It was still a factor, but “not number one”.

Other recent studies support the Future Work Centre findings of the negative effect of frequent email checks.

For example, a study by University of British Columbia researchers last year found checking email only three times a day almost qualified as a relaxation technique.

“The reduction in stress was about as large as the benefit people get from learning relaxation techniques (e.g., taking deep breaths, visualising peaceful imagery),” the researchers said in a NY Times article.

“In other words, cutting back on email might reduce stress as much as picturing yourself swimming in the warm waters of a tropical island several times a day.”

There is potential for even more upside as many participants found it too difficult to keep to three checks a day – typically going in for around twice that number, while still achieving de-stressing benefits.

Other research – such as this University of Hamburg research also from 2015 – points to the damage that having push email in your pocket can cause.

That study found higher stress levels among people expected to be on-call after hours – which accounts for many people in IT – compared to those who have permission to switch off.

Ultimately, it will come down to the appetite of employers and employees to alter their behaviours and the culture they create.