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The Future of Work

You Aren't Imagining It: Email Is Making You More Stressed Out

Take email away, and people (gasp!) talk to each other, feel less stressed and still get their work done.

[Photo: Flickr user Artotem]

Of all of the things in your workday that could cause you to feel stressed, but checking your email likely seems like the most benign.

But when Gloria Mark, a researcher at the University of California at Irving strapped heart-rate monitors to a team of U.S. army civilian employees, she discovered that email was in fact a major cause of stress.

After taking away their email for five days, Mark found stress levels, measured by heart-rate monitors, decreased. Mark wasn’t totally surprised by the findings."Email has put so many demands on people," she says.

Without email, the employees reported they felt more in control of their working lives. The social norms attached to email that demand a quick response time is largely what Mark attributed to the rising stress levels.

Imagine if you received an email from a coworker and didn’t respond for eight hours? In most companies that would be considered sacrilegious. "Many companies have a culture where they receive an email and are expected to respond immediately. This puts stress on people," says Mark.

Although Mark thought it would be possible that not having access to email may have caused increased stress, at least for the first few days, this wasn’t the case at all. In place of email, people instead engaged in face-to-face conversations with co-workers.

"It could be one reason that people were less stressed is simply that they had more social interaction," she says. Mark suspects had the study been done for longer than five days, the researchers would have seen an even more significant decline in stress.

Not only did Mark’s research uncover a link to stress and email, but in another study in which she examined mood throughout the day, Mark found a correlation between increased email usage and a poor mood.

"Email is relentless. There’s no break," she says. "You’re on this treadmill. You’re trying to stay on top of your email, which really means staying on top of the tasks that you’re being asked to do on email, but then you keep getting more and more email which represents more and more tasks.

In addition to a moody, stressed out workers, Mark has noticed one more thing in her studies on email in the workplace. Although we often feel we’re being productive by answering a barrage of ever-flowing emails, Mark reports participants in her email studies reported their productivity actually improved when email was taken away.

Many reported they switched tasks less often and were better able to focus when their inbox was closed. This is no surprise considering the average worker checks their email 74 times a day, according to Mark’s research. That’s about nine times an hour in a typical eight-hour workday.

Although it’s clear our work lives have become unbalanced thanks to email, cutting it out completely is simply not realistic for most of us. Fortunately, Mark says we don’t have to eliminate email in order to avoid these negative side effects of a bad mood and high stress levels, but she encourages companies to implement email control policies.

"I think that people should restrict reading emails to limited times during the day instead of continually checking it," she says. Of course, because of the social expectation of a rapid response, no one single person in a company can decide they’re only going to check email twice a day. "It’s really an organizational mandate because if any single individual tries to pull out of this email web, they’re going to be penalized and out of the loop," says Mark.

Mark isn’t anti-email, but says companies need to re-think how we use digital tools to increase employees’ happiness and well-being. Implementing email free hours and encouraging everyone in the organization to save their emails in drafts and send them out in batches at key times of the day may be the answer to overcoming email stress.