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Email Productivity v Stress

Although there have been positive moves towards improving work-place health, there remains a high prevalence of work-related stress. One explanation is that technological advances over the past decade, particularly smartphones and tablets, has resulted in an increase in non-standard work schedules, including evening, night and weekend work.
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Although there have been positive moves towards improving work-place health, there remains a high prevalence of work-related stress. One explanation is that technological advances over the past decade, particularly smartphones and tablets, has resulted in an increase in non-standard work schedules, including evening, night and weekend work. Indeed, internet access ‘on the go’ has increased, with 78% of adults reporting accessing the internet away from work or home on a mobile device. Additionally, mobile devices are the most popular form of accessing emails, with around half of all emails being opened on mobile devices.

Work Home Interference

The flexibility to enable people to balance work and family life has been highlighted in the Marmot Review. However, an unintended consequence of agile working may be a constraint to work via an ‘electronic leash’, and a resultant inability to ‘switch off’ from work. Work-home interference (WHI) refers to a process of negative interaction between work and home domains, and increasing expectations regarding availability suggest that employees feel compelled to immediately respond to work-related messages, even during leisure time. Such pressures may be both overt, with managers setting clear expectations to remain engaged with work via electronic communications, or more subtle and attributable to unspoken company norms or a desire to demonstrate a high work ethic. Individual motives to access email during leisure time may also be important. For example, some individuals may experience a positive emotional response after ‘clearing the inbox’.

While recognising that there are motivations to engage with email, employees who stay connected to their work during leisure time make it very hard, if not impossible, to psychologically detach from work, connect fully with family and social groups, thus increasing WHI and impeding rest and recovery. Although several studies have investigated the effects of weekends and holidays on employee health and well-being, the beneficial effects of these relatively long periods away from work diminish quickly. In contrast, daily recovery during evening hours has a larger impact on employee health, well-being and productivity.

Chronic Stress

In support of these findings, research from our group has demonstrated a significant association between self-reported stress during leisure time, but not during work hours, and hair cortisol, a biological marker of chronic stress levels. It is possible that this association may reflect a general inability to rest and recover from work during leisure time, resulting in long-term effects via biological embedding of stress.

Emails and Stress

To date, few studies have examined the specific role of engaging with work emails on perceived stress. One large cross-sectional survey of 471 University staff in Australia found that an expectation of a quick turnaround and an escalation in email traffic were associated with email overload and increased work-related stress [1]. There is also evidence from small observational studies that personality traits, such as worry and longer time spent responding to emails are associated with increased perceived stress and reduced productivity. One small experimental study of 124 employees tested the effects of restricting the frequency of email checking to three times a day, and reported that this had a positive impact on employee stress and well-being [2].

So the relationship between email engagement and stress and productivity is varied and to a degree depends on how ourselves choose to engage with email. We will explore these email engagement strategies over the next step.

References

  1. Pignata S, Lushington K, Sloan J, Buchanan F. Employees’ perceptions of email communication, volume and management strategies in an Australian university. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management. 2015;37(2):159-171.
  2. Kushlev K, Dunn E. Checking email less frequently reduces stress. Computers in Human Behavior. 2015;43:220-228.
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Workplace Wellbeing: Stress and Productivity at Work

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