We all know the positive effects on the bottom line of quick, succinct email communication. Productivity increases, customers receive better service, and income increases. Being able to reach your customers and your employees any time, day or night, has become a symbol of technological progress—but to what end? Recent studies report that the constant stream of emails may have detrimental effects on your employees. In fact, many employees report that due to constant distractions from email, they are less creative, less efficient, and experience greater amounts of stress and anger.
According to Sara Radicati in the Email Statistics Report 2014-2018, we receive over 100 billion emails every day, most relating to business. As reported by Gloria J. Mark, Stephen Voida, and Armand V. Cardelloatat in Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (2012), each of us checks email about 36 times an hour, with email occupying about 23 percent of the average employee’s workday.
So why do email and stress go hand in hand? “Email increases multitasking, thus fragmenting our attention and contributing to our feeling that there is so much to do and not enough time to do it,” says Kostadin Kushlev, lead researcher from the University of British Columbia. “A large amount of research shows that multitasking actually impairs performance and productivity by slowing people down and depleting their cognitive resources,” Kushlev says. “Email also causes stress because it’s a never-ending to-do list,” he adds. “So when you are in the middle of a task that needs to be done as soon as possible and you check your email to find out that 10 more people are awaiting your reply as soon as possible, you might feel overwhelmed.”
In his book, Under New Management, David Burkus claims a revolution has begun against email. Burkus identifies many organizations that are using different strategies to give employees more control over internal emails. For example, Atos SE, a France-based technology company, and el Mejor Trato, a South American Travel company, are eliminating their internal email systems and replacing them with community-building software. These systems have no notifications or alerts to interrupt a focused employee. Rather, the employee can decide how to enter a discussion and get what they need. After three years, Atos has reduced its overall email by 60 percent. This in turn, has had a direct impact on the Company’s earnings per share—increasing them by more than 50 percent. Additionally, Under New Management outlines alternatives for the email overload, such as limiting email to certain times of the day and closing the email program for the rest of the day. Another option is to let employees select a “Mail on Holiday” out-of-office reply that notifies the sender that the email will be deleted, and requests that the sender either resend it on the employee’s return date or send it to a specified alternative person who is not away from the office.
With competition for our employees’ limited cognitive resources, it appears that management will have to ultimately set boundaries that allow employees to be productive or look for additional ways to increase those cognitive resources.