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Knowledge@Australian School of Business

Email Stress: Managing the Tyranny of Inbox Overload

Published: March 29, 2011 in Knowledge@Australian School of Business
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Two decades ago, few people had heard of email, but in a single generation, online communication has transformed the way the business world interacts. Today, people around the world send out billions of emails daily and, in the same way the telephone impacted on letter writing, so email and instant messaging have curtailed the time people spend talking to each other by phone or face-to-face.

The scale of the email onslaught can have serious consequences for the ability to function at work. An extreme example is Microsoft founder Bill Gates who receives – roughly – 4 million emails per year. Gates presumably has minions to sort his inbox, but others confront an abundance of emails daily that demand to be answered.

In 2010, the typical corporate user sent and received about 110 messages daily, according to California-based technology market research firm, Radicati Group. And, of the emails received, about 18% were spam and unwanted newsletters or alerts. Beyond the annoyance it causes, spam has a cost factor. Radicati estimated that an organisation of 1000 employees can spend upwards of US$3 million a year fighting and managing spam. In the US, surveys showed that lost productivity due to spam was costing industry between US$17 billion to US$21 billion annually.

But it's not just spam that saps time and clogs inboxes. Information overload (IO), another by-product of the email age, also poses a problem. In a 2010 survey of 1700 knowledge workers by legal publishing house, LexisNexis, half of the respondents claimed that only about 50% of their emails – on average – were relevant to getting their jobs done. "The average Australian employee spends less than two-and-a-half days per week actually doing their job. The rest of the time is spent navigating a virtual forest of information," according to the report, Information Rage Impacting Australian Workers.

How Email Adds Up

In a research project for British training company, 50Fold, Richard Vidgen, head of Information Systems at the Australian School of Business, explored the issue of email overload and showed while spam and unwanted email account for some time wasted, it's intra-departmental emails that take up most of an employee's time.

Vidgen developed a spreadsheet tool to calculate the cost of email for firms. An email audit is the first step in re-educating people in how to create, manage and think about email, he says. 50Fold claims that, by addressing the problem of email overload, companies can improve their productivity by 20% or more and reduce costs. "Everyone thinks they can multitask, but they can't," says Vidgen. "If you're constantly being interrupted by email, you're not doing sustained periods of work."

There's a fundamental misunderstanding of how to use email correctly, notes Vidgen's colleague John D'Ambra, a professor in Information Systems at the Australian School of Business. "People don't match the medium to the particular task at hand," he explains. "There are always two roles with email: the sender and the receiver – and email should always take into context the receiver of the message so he or she knows: How urgent is this message? Do I have enough information? Do I need to respond?"

In surveys conducted in the US, workers have been generally positive about the uses and applications of email believing that it enhances their ability to do their job. However, where there is criticism, it's that email is like a sawn-off shotgun – the bullets fly everywhere. It's easy to compose, informal and – with one click of the mouse – it can be sent to a large group of people. Telephones and instant messaging (IM) are more closed systems of communication, says D'Ambra. They offer more privacy. IM, a tool favoured by the younger generation, allows the user to create a list of buddies who they interact with online. With the telephone, it's possible to take a message and respond to it at your leisure. By contrast, email is an open system and more invasive: anyone can send you a message at any time.

As more people use portable devices, such as a BlackBerrys and iPhones, it's not surprising that they begin to feel overwhelmed, replying to messages at all times, day and night. In 2007 in the UK, the Daily Telegraph newspaper reported one in three workers were suffering from "email stress" and in 2009, the head of France Telecom spoke out against email overload at a time when 22 people at the company committed suicide in less than two years. Although email is unlikely to be the precipitous factor, the stress of being constantly connected is now being widely acknowledged and researched.

Escalating Disputes

Beyond the volume of communications received, the negative effects of email manifests in various ways, says D'Ambra. It can encourage an inhospitable working environment by increasing isolation and it may be used for close supervision and rigid performance monitoring in a workplace. Email can be an instrument of harassment and bullying and has been shown to escalate disputes, he notes.

Miles Hunt, a partner at Schofield King, a Sydney-based law firm specialising in workplace disputes, agrees that emails increase tension rather than diffuse it. "You often see two sides digging in and the emails get more and more out of control," he notes. "When it's face-to-face, people use social skills and tend not to go so much on the front foot." It's the faceless form of communication that adds to people's stress at work, Hunt says. "People often feel they're not being heard if they have complaints or are victimised by a boss – email is a perfect tool for cowards."

What's most alarming about email is the incessant interruption it creates and the length of time it takes workers to recover from each disturbance. Message by message, email is clawing away at productivity. Training courses for employees on how to use email effectively are proliferating. "People are using these tools in a way they weren't designed to, which is why an organisational approach is required to change behaviours," says D'Ambra.

When workers were video recorded for research purposes by Vidgen, he discovered it takes an average of 64 seconds for a person to recover from an email interruption.

So what needs to be changed? First, it seems many need a lesson in email composition. In a recent paper, Email at work: a cause for concern?, UK academics Howard Taylor, George Fieldman and Yochanan Altman, reported that 52% of recipients found their emails hard to understand, with a lack of clarity about what action, if any, was required. D'Ambra notes that people are generally lax when it comes to using the subject line to convey the content and urgency of the message.

Bad habits also have developed around how often the inbox is checked, with some users referring to email every few minutes or allowing work to be interrupted by leaving on the notification noise. Addictive behaviour has been identified in organisations, says D'Ambra. Substantial literature is emerging that describes the compulsive habits of "email junkies". "They get gratification receiving emails; it makes people feel needed, that they're important. It's happening because organisations and individuals are not managing email correctly," D'Ambra says.

Vidgen advises that for concentrated working, such as writing a report, real-time email notification should be turned off and messages checked periodically, say every 40 minutes, or a specific time set aside at the end of each day to deal with emails.

Companies, such as telecom US Cellular, have responded to overload by introducing email-free Fridays when workers can concentrate on detailed projects. It reports that productivity has increased as a result. At US chipmaker, Intel, when it comes to internal communications, the company puts technology to one side and encourages staff to meet face-to-face instead of sending an instant message or email to someone sitting a few metres away.

Vidgen believes this is the way forward: that corporations need to take a lead in changing employee behaviour. "Companies too often assume that because we all use email, we know what we're doing," he says. Leading by example can change aberrant behaviour, says D'Ambra. "If there is a culture of well-managed mail and a person experiences how their organisation deals with email, it's going to be much harder for an individual to behave in a way that is outside the norm."

With the number of worldwide email accounts projected to increase from more than 2.9 billion in 2010, to more than 3.8 billion by 2014, according to Radicati, in the campaign against email domination, there's no time to lose.

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