If email stresses you out, you can take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone. One study from 2016 found that checking or reading email is frequently listed as participants’ most stressful activity on a day-to-day basis. It might be a lurking sense of anxiety every time you hear the chime of a new incoming email, or it might eat away at you in subtler ways, making you feel uncomfortable in the middle of the night when you wonder whether there’s something you missed in your inbox, or what horrors will await you in the morning.
It affects everyone a little differently, but there’s no doubt that email can be enormously stressful. In this article, I’m going to cover some of the most significant ways email causes stress, and pose solutions that could help you overcome them.
Recognizing the Dangers of Stress
First, let’s explore why this is such an issue in the first place. It’s nearly impossible to hold any job without some stress, but too much stress can lead to devastating consequences:
- Mental and emotional health. We tend to think of stress as a mental phenomenon, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that excessive levels can lead to issues related to mental and emotional health. Stress is highly correlated with depression, anxiety disorders, and other mood disorders, and if left unchecked, can leave you with career burnout. It can also leave you in a terrible mood, and rob you of mental energy.
- Physical health. It’s not just a mental phenomenon, either. In early stages of experiencing high levels of stress, you’ll develop things like headaches, fatigue, and sleep problems. Later on, it can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, and susceptibility to physical illness.
- Relationships. There’s evidence to suggest that high email volumes or after-hours work can increase stress in your partner, even if indirectly. Stress has a radiating effect on the people around you, regardless of where it originates; the more stressed you are, the less able you’ll be to manage your relationships, and your social and family life will suffer.
- Concentration and productivity. Even if you’re willing to sacrifice your health and relationships for your career, you should know that stress also interferes with your concentration and productivity; a little stress can actually motivate you to perform better, but too much will sap your cognitive resources and hinder your performance.
The bad news is, email stress doesn’t come from just one direction, nor does it take one form. The good news is, most of these sources are identifiable, and once you recognize them, it’s possible to take action on them and nullify them—or at least mitigate their effects.
I’ll be reviewing these potential sources, one by one.
I’m willing to bet you have a triggered reaction when you hear or feel something related to email, such as a vibration in your pocket, or a specific chime sequence when a new email comes in. Notifications are valuable because they draw our attention to new emails immediately, allowing us to respond faster and make use of email’s near-instant capacity, but it’s also responsible for much of the stress we feel.
Around 65 percent of people have email notifications turned on 24/7, whether it’s in-browser notifications or an alert on our phones. Combine that with the fact that the average office worker receives 121 emails a day, and you have a scenario where you get 121 alerts, while you’re trying to work or enjoy yourself at home.
It should be intuitive why this is stressful, but there are a few different effects in play here.
First, there’s a natural trigger of tension and worry. While some emails may be positive—congratulations on a job well done or an invitation to something special—there are just as many, if not more emails that are sources of new responsibilities, beratements, or emergencies that need to be dealt with. And thanks to negativity bias, we have a tendency to overestimate the negative effects of negative emails, while underestimating the potential value of positive ones. By default, we unconsciously assume that the email we’ve gotten is a bad thing, so the chime or vibration makes us worry.
Then, there’s the distraction factor. Any notification significant enough to capture our attention is significant enough to pull us away from what we’re doing—or at least break our chain of concentration. That may not seem like a big deal—it may only take a few seconds to see what the email is about—but the effects are disastrous. According to one study by UC Irvine, it takes an average of 23 minutes for you to fully recover from a distraction. It doesn’t take much to realize that if you’re getting emails every 23, you may never achieve full, unbroken concentration for any task. Your work will be delayed, your productivity will be compromised, and you’ll deal with more stress as a result.
There are a few possible solutions for this problem, but they’re all rooted in the same philosophy: stop getting so many notifications.
If you’re in a position of power, you have more control over this. You can simply turn off notifications during specific periods of “heads-down” time, and turn them back on when you’re ready to be on call. You may also be able to use a third-party Gmail app to “batch” your emails together, restricting incoming notifications during set stretches of time to allow you to work.
I also advise you to turn off notifications on your phone, no matter what your position. If you need to check your email occasionally after hours to make sure you haven’t missed anything, you can do so of your own volition (within reason), but avoid the distracting, anxiety-inducing notifications that would otherwise plague you. Some countries have banned after-hours email entirely, so there’s certainly a precedent for it.
2. Checking Behavior
Even if you turn off notifications, you might feel the need to compulsively check your email, leaving your account open in a separate browser tab or occasionally refreshing your mail app. But this compulsive checking behavior isn’t good for you, either.
The traditional narrative is that we check our email because we feel like we have to. We feel like checking our email is a way of fulfilling our responsibilities as employees, so monitoring our inbox gives us a feeling of relief and temporary fulfillment. There may be some truth to this, as inbox-checking does provide us a sense of relief, only to be followed by increasing tension as we go hours or days without checking it.
However, the stressful component of this behavior probably comes from a kind of slot machine effect. Slot machines produce addictive behavior in humans because of their payout schedule. You pull the lever, which could be substituted for any meaningful action, and are met with results. Most of the time, nothing happens—in fact, a very small negative happens (you lose money)—but every once in a while, something very positive happens: you win something. The intrinsic thrill of winning, accompanied by a dopamine release, encourages us to keep pulling that lever in the hopes of feeling it again.
Email works in a similar way. Depending on what we’re hoping for, checking email could have one of several positive outcomes—no new emails could mean you can rest easy for the foreseeable future, or a new email of praise could make you feel good about yourself. But most of the time, we get what we expect—a handful of emails that don’t mean much, or an emergency email that needs to be dealt with immediately. Accordingly, we’re conditioned to keep checking our email, at regular intervals, to get that payoff. But like any habit, whether it’s playing a slot machine, smoking, or endlessly scrolling down Reddit, it’s unhealthy for us.
There’s also scientific evidence for this effect, as it relates to email specifically. One study in Computers in Human Behavior found that adults who checked their email an unlimited number of times per day were significantly more stressed than those who checked their email three times a day.
Turning off notifications is a good start because it toggles something off, and puts it beyond your immediate control. Checking behavior is much harder to solve because unless you put your devices entirely out of reach, mastery is going to require some measure of discipline and self-control.
In the previously cited study, participants were randomly assigned a condition to check their email no more than three times a day. You may be able to find an app to help you do this, but even the best distraction-busting app will have a workaround that allows you to avoid holding yourself accountable; the Frog and Toad story of the cookie jar comes to mind.
The bad news is, it’s going to take significant effort on your part to eliminate this checking behavior. The good news is, once you establish a consistent habit, it’s going to be practically effortless to maintain.
For most of us, opening our email account to find 1,814 unread messages and a haphazard selection of read, unread, marked, and unmarked messages in the first page of our inbox is like walking into our living room and seeing garbage cluttering the floor. You probably have a friend who’s obsessed with decluttering, but the social phenomenon is based on real evidence; a study from UCLA found a significant link between clutter and anxiety (as well as chronic stress). Granted, this study focused on physical clutter in the home, but it could easily apply to your inbox as well.
Some of us believe that it’s better this way; they don’t try to keep any system of organization, instead letting the cards fall as they may. This logic is equivalent to never organizing your house, because you know where everything is (even if it’s in an illogical position). For most of us, the problem lies in execution; we have a reasonable, yet theoretical system of organization that would allow us to mark and categorize our emails properly, as well as respond to those emails in a manner befitting their urgency. Instead, we let a few emails slip past us, and before we know it, we’re immersed in a disorganized system that hinders our productivity and drives us crazy (whether we consciously realize it or not).
A disorganized inbox is even worse if you know it’s a problem, and have been delaying any attempt to fix it. In these situations, it serves as a nagging responsibility you never quite have time for.
Gmail has a ton of features designed to make organizing your inbox seamless and intuitive. Depending on your preferences, you can use importance markers, stars, labels, and features like “snooze” to keep your inbox nice and tidy. You can also set up filters to organize certain emails automatically, sparing you the hassle of manually sorting them. It will take some time to whip your current inbox into shape, but once you apply these standards consistently, you’ll have a much more pleasant inbox to navigate.
You can also use EmailAnalytics to measure how many emails you have in each of several different categories, and determine your levels of email productivity before and after your new system of organization. It’s ideal if you aren’t sure what your current level of disorganization is, or if you aren’t sure which method of organization will suit you best.
4. Response Pressure
One study found that even if you decrease the number of hours an employee spends checking email after work, the stress and pressure remains. Why? Because the mere expectation of being responsible for incoming emails is enough to create a damaging effect.
For the most part, I feel that after-hours email checking is completely unwarranted, and unethical to expect of your employees. But there’s a real precedent for the looming pressure to respond. Fast responses get better results in sales positions; somewhere between 35 and 50 percent of all sales go to the vendor who responds first. And following up within an hour of an initial email can increase your chances of closing a deal by a factor of seven.
These aren’t statistics to be taken lightly, and they’re compounded by the fact that fast responses in any work environment are generally better; when you don’t have to wait around for an answer to an important question, you can keep working indefinitely.
Unfortunately, this constant pressure to respond in a matter of hours, if not minutes, disallows us to spend time relaxing on nights and weekends, and keeps us from devoting our full attention to most projects in front of us.
This solution has to be a compromise, and a compromise is possible.
Internally, your best bet is to set the right expectations. Establishing that you’ll be unavailable during certain hours, such as the majority of your weekend or a heads-down period from 1-3 pm, can help you avoid the risk of a coworker emailing you and expecting an immediate answer. If an immediate answer is truly necessary, they can always call you or reach you with a similarly urgent medium.
Externally, things are more complex. Customers and clients may have high expectations for how quickly you respond, and meeting those expectations is vital if you want a chance to win their business. You could include a message on the contact form to allow several hours for a response, or even caution them to wait until the next business day, but again, this could lose you the deal if they choose a vendor with more prompt response times.
Since this is a problem typically restricted to sales (and potentially marketing) professionals, I’d advise establishing some kind of shift system. Make it so there’s always one person responsible for handling incoming queries without it being the same person all the time. Alternating “watch duty” every other weekend, for example, would ensure prompt responses without overburdening any single employee with the demand of constant email-checking.
5. Tonal Ambiguity
Humans evolved to communicate in multiple ways, all of which can (and generally, should) be used simultaneously. We tend to think it’s our words that do most of the work, but our intonation, the volume of our voice, and our body language—from how we sit to micro-expressions in our faces—all play a role in how we’re perceived.
Email, while an extraordinarily efficient medium, strips these secondary communicative indicators away. That means, occasionally, we’re left with an ambiguously worded email that could be interpreted as anywhere on the spectrum between “joking” and “hostile.”
When a boss emails you to let you know there’s an issue with your latest project, their concise tone could be taken as direct and to-the-point, or curt and expressing discontentment. When a client tells you “Monday will have to do,” when you inform them you can’t complete their request by the weekend, it’s hard to tell if they’re accepting or disappointed.
We’re left in a kind of uncanny valley between positive and negative interpretations. And in some ways, it’s more stressful than an outright negative email; at least in that scenario, you’ll have a certain understanding of the message. Sure, you could ask for clarity, but if you’re making an appeal to someone in a higher position than you, you could come off as ineffectual.
Between close contacts, you can get away with informalities that make your tone obvious, such as emojis or short phrases like “lol.” It’s also more permissible to ask for tonal clarity, such as asking whether or not the original sender was being sarcastic.
If you’re stuck dealing with an ambiguous message from a supervisor or client, your options are limited. Your best bet is to make the best assumption you can, given the information available to you (including the sentence structures and patterns of previous emails); at least then, you’ll be dealing with some level of certainty. Then, try to respond and proceed in a way that’s equally ambiguous, completing any requests, but not committing to any kind of emotional response.
6. Cascading and Effort Ambiguity
The stress from email also comes from its ties to additional responsibilities. As the Harvard Business Review points out, part of the problem is the potential cascade of work that can come from answering an email positively: “Each ‘yes’ leads to a cascade of (typically unforeseen) work.”
For example, let’s say you get an email from a boss or client that indicates there’s some kind of problem within your team. The email says to “check it out.” In a best-case scenario, you’ll respond that you’re on it, send a message to your employees, and ferret out a problem and appropriate response in a matter of a few minutes. In a worst-case scenario, you’ll say you’re on it, get some information from your team, then have to delve into a full-scale investigation, reporting the information as you receive it to your eagerly awaiting supervisor.
Again, we have a kind of ambiguity here; answering and addressing any email could be a quick, one-time task, or send you down a rabbit hole of tasks and new questions to answer (or anywhere in between). That’s why every email you get carries some weight; you don’t know its intrinsic value, and in most cases, you won’t know its effects on your work until you start working on it.
There’s no easy solution here, since no matter what, you’ll face at least one period of uncertainty when getting new emails. But you can seize more control over your priorities, and get more transparency into your email patterns. Using EmailAnalytics will allow you to determine how you send and receive emails; you’ll learn things like who sends you the most email, and how long it usually takes you to respond to an email. Using those data, you can adjust your habits and (ideally) get a better sense of what an email will truly cost you.
You can also prevent cascades of new responsibilities from piling up by learning to say “no.” While you might want to make a good impression and outperform your peers, you should also be acutely aware of how much effort you’re spending at your job and what your priorities are; from there, it’s appropriate to turn down or delegate responsibilities that keep you away from your most important tasks.
7. The Problem of Norms
All the root causes of stress I’ve covered so far are compounded by one critical factor; the fact that the norms of professional email are pervasive, and difficult to change. For example, in an organization that expects late-night email conversations, it’s hard to convince your team to accept the fact that you’ll be offline during those hours. If you’re conditioned to checking your email on reflex, it’s incredibly hard to break that habit.
This escalates the difficulty of almost every solution on this list, since it precludes the possibility of immediate changes or results. So is there a way to address these egregiously entrenched norms?
My best advice here is to be as straightforward as possible with your motivations. If you’re in a position of power, and have the ability to set a new standard for work responsibilities, announce the expected change to your employees and explain why you’re changing it; for example, you might explain that you’re abolishing night/weekend emails as much as possible, and offer the possibility of phone calls for true emergencies.
If you’re not in a position of power, your best play is to make a request or announcement to your immediate boss or supervisor, with a focus on how your proposed solution is ultimately going to be better for productivity. For example, you might explain that you’re turning off email notifications so you can work with fewer distractions, or explain that you’ll be changing your email checking habits so you can forge a healthier work-life balance. As long as you include empirical data or convince your superior that there’s an objective benefit for the company, they should be open to your solutions.
Dealing With Stress in Other Ways
Targeting these problems directly should help you avoid or limit the majority of the email-related stress you’ll encounter, but you’re bound to have some left over; email is too important to our careers to be devoid of stress entirely. But you can adopt other strategies to cope with the leftover stress:
- Exercise. Physical exercise is ideal before (or during) work, giving you a boost of mood and energy, and letting you forget about your responsibilities for a little while. It will also counteract some of the physical effects of stress.
- Meditation. Mindfulness meditation is all about awareness of the present moment, which will help you avoid getting distracted by email (or worn out by it).
- Journaling. Journaling can help you center your thoughts and confront what you’re feeling (and why you’re feeling it). It can either make your problems seem smaller, or help you process your thoughts and feelings—both of which are valuable.
- Sleep, rest, and vacation. Dedicate enough time in your schedule to get a good night’s rest, and take a vacation at least once or twice a year—a real vacation, without constantly checking your email.
You can’t get rid of the stress of email all at once, nor can you eliminate every source of email stress; email is a pillar of communication in the business world, and it’s here to stay. But with the right tools and techniques, you can mitigate the primary causes of your stress, and learn to cope with the secondary causes.
In your journey, I highly recommend you give EmailAnalytics a try. It can help you perfect the art of emailing, and eliminate some of the bad habits and bad sources leading to excess stress in your life. Sign up for free today!
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