Despite the growing influence of social media in our lives, most of us still rely on e-mail not only for work but also personal communication. And we all get many more emails than we (a) need to and (b) enjoy dealing with. Consider the following findings:
A recent report by the McKinsey Global Institute found that we spend 28 % of our time reading and responding to e-mails, and an additional 19 % searching and gathering information to effectively address our emails – for most people in developed or developing nations, then, to work is to e-mail. The figures are even higher for “knowledge workers” (professionals, skilled, or well-paid workers): a staggering 28 hours per week are spend on e-mail-related tasks (reading, thinking, planning, and writing them, whether for internal or external communications). Add social media to the equation, and you will wonder what we used to do 20-years ago, before the advent of digital communications…
In a recent study, Mark, Voida and Cardello (2012) cut off e-mail access for employees for 5 days. They also measured their concentration levels – task focus, shifting between windows – and both physiological and psychological measures of stress, and compared these to the usual levels of e-mail-based work. Their results showed that task focus was significantly higher during the five days of no e-mail compared to a baseline measure of working with e-mail access. Besides, they found that employees experienced less stress when they no access to new e-mails than when they did. Cutting off e-mails may not be the solution, but this study still suggests that lower e-mail traffic improves work quality and performance output.
In another study, Barley, Meyerson & Grodal (2011) measured perceived e-mail usage in relation to exhaustion and burnout. They found that e-mail is perceived as a source of stress, for two main reasons: first, it extends the amount of work, leading to longer working hours (sometimes outside the office and on weekend) – and if they don’t answer, people feel they risk falling behind with work tasks. Second – and somewhat paradoxically – the more time people spend on handling e-mails, the more overloaded and stressed they feel. This inability to switch off creates a vicious circle whereby higher usage increases dependence without actually increasing perceived productivity.
If you are interested in techniques for decreasing your e-mail traffic, I very much recommend Tim Ferris’ masterpiece book on the subject.
Mark, G.J., Voida, S. & Cardello, A.V. (2012). “A Pace Not Dictated by Electrons”: An Empirical Study of Work Without Email. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2012, 555-564), Austin, Texas, May 5–10. ACM Press.
Stephen R. Barley, Debra E. Meyerson, Stine Grodal: E-mail as a Source and Symbol of Stress. Organization Science, 22, 887-906