This week’s post by psychologist and academic Angela Mansi focuses on the stress email can cause us – and how we can use it with more consideration for our colleagues and ourselves.
Email was supposed to make our lives easier, with quicker responses, less paperwork, fewer misunderstandings, and more transparent workplace communication. Unfortunately, rather than reducing workloads, the amount of email people get every day tends to pile on more, and is an increasing cause of stress and anxiety at work.
Email – intrusive and stressful?
Email is considered by more and more people not only intrusive but also stressful. Compulsive checking can mean one is never offline. Smart phones enable emails to be sent – and received – wherever we are in the world, whether trekking in Patagonia or skiing down a mountain. No one can escape and the increasing implications for mental and physical health have compelled change within organisations. French employees argued that they were expected to check and reply to their work emails at unreasonable hours, weekends and while on holiday, were not being paid fairly for their overtime, and that the practice carries a risk of stress, burnout, sleep problems and relationship difficulties.
One of my clients returned from a two-week holiday, and switched on her office computer to discover that more than 2000 emails had arrived in her absence. This induced, in her words, a feeling of “nausea and panic”. Benoit Hamon, a member of French Parliament told the BBC that “Employees physically leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash — like a dog. The texts, the messages, the emails — they colonize the life of the individual to the point where he or she eventually breaks down.”
Email – selfish and inconsiderate?
“Email is a very selfish tool,” says Clare Burge, who runs a Dublin-based consultancy called Get Organised. “People dump tasks into each other’s inboxes without thinking about whether they are being considerate.” After returning from a 10-day trip to Morocco in 2001 to find 10,000 new messages in her inbox, she refused to use email at all and asked people to call her instead. She said this changed her whole working life, (BBC Rayasam 25 March 2015).
The distracting effect of email also impacts direct on productivity and research shows that constantly checking email is more detrimental to concentration than smoking marijuana. It can take up to 15 mins to refocus after stopping to answer an email. As a result we lose many working hours each day.
The French approach
In an attempt to address this – and the resulting impacts on health, family life, and personal time – the French government has introduced the “right to disconnect”. This new law came into force on 1 January 2017, and obliges any company with more than 50 workers to draw up a contract setting out the hours during which the sending of emails is forbidden. France is a member of the ECHR, as are we in the UK (still), so its citizens have the right to have their private and home life protected from unnecessary intrusions.
Nevertheless, there is a downside to the new French law. People who only get the chance to catch upon email at night, or very early morning, are now forbidden to do so, which adds to their stress. People who run their own companies, for instance, and academics; those who travel a lot could be forbidden to email when they have the opportunity to do so.
3 tips for managing email better
If you would feel bereft without email, or you can’t do your job without it…
• be considerate. Ask: is this email necessary? Can I call instead? And do I really need to copy everyone in the whole department in?
• be concise. Is your email brief and to the point?
• send fewer round-robin emails, and learn to manage your work boundaries
• don’t email colleagues at midnight, or when you know they’re on holiday.
Following email etiquette and reducing personal use at weekends, on holiday and when you’re ill will lead to less stress and, I would argue, a more effective workforce and a more productive working life.
Angela Mansi CPsychol AFBPsS FHEA is a Senior Lecturer in Leadership and Development at Westminster Business School with extensive experience in business and teaching in Higher Education. A Chartered Occupational Psychologist (BPS) and a Registered Psychologist with the HCPC, Angela is an Associate Fellow of the BPS and the HFE.
She specialises in coaching for senior management development and is Director of WorkLife Management Ltd. Her clients include airlines, the banking sector, the military, construction companies and private individuals. She has completed a PhD investigating personality and emotions at work (University of London).