Unless you're very young or very old, it's likely you have some kind of relationship with email, whether you get hundreds of messages a day or a few dozen a week. A new study suggests that how we deal with these incoming messages could be affecting our stress levels and overall health.
A team from the Future Work Centre in the UK surveyed close to 2,000 people across various industries, sectors, and job roles, asking participants how they managed their email and how much associated stress they felt as a result. Overall, those who spent the most time organising and staying on top of messages felt the most email-related pressure too.
"Our research shows that email is a double-edged sword," said one of the team, Richard MacKinnon. "Whilst it can be a valuable communication tool, it's clear that it's a source of stress of frustration for many of us. The people who reported it being most useful to them also reported the highest levels of email pressure!"
"The habits we develop, the emotional reactions we have to messages, and the unwritten organisational etiquette around email, combine into a toxic source of stress which could be negatively impacting our productivity and wellbeing," he added.
The report is available to read in full online.
Two of the habits linked to more email-related stress were checking for messages first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Nearly half of those surveyed had push notifications set up for new email, while 62 percent of respondents left their email app open all day. Both were linked to higher levels of perceived email pressure. The survey also found that managers suffered more than non-managers.
Stress is not just a problem when it comes to our mood - it's been linked to a slew of disorders such as heart disease, weight gain, memory impairment, digestive problems, and depression.
The researchers suggest that an individual's personality acts as a moderator between perceived email pressure and work-life balance: in other words, the relationship between email-related stress and the negative impact on home life is not the same for everyone.
MacKinnon admits there's no 'one-size-fits-all' solution, but recommends turning off email notifications or planning the day before checking for new messages if you find the email pressure getting too much.
There's a growing body of research indicating that this 'always-on', constantly connected work culture is actually making us less productive. A 2014 study by researchers at Stanford University found that a 70-hour work week doesn't necessarily result in more getting done than a 55-hour work week.
"Reducing hours, say, from 55 to 50 hours a week, would have had only small effects on output," The Economist said of the study. "The results are even starker when we are talking about very long working hours. Output at 70 hours of work differed little from output at 56 hours. That extra 14 hours was a waste of time."
Running ourselves into the ground is looking more and more counter-productive, both for us and the people we work for.
Not only does working too hard for too many hours cause stress on our emotions and physical bodies, it often cuts down on the time we spend asleep: time that's essential if we need to successfully recharge our batteries and stay on top of our workloads in the first place. So close your email application and treat yourself to some downtime - chances are the quality of your work will improve while your stress levels drop.