Are you drowning in emails?

On Monday, a colleague of mine returned to work after a three-week holiday. He looked a little bleary eyed by the time I got in, so I enquired after his jetlag.

“Jetlag? What jetlag?” he replied. “I was fine until I looked at my email inbox.”

Ah, yes. We’ve all been there. The first day back in the office is almost always an inbox-induced write-off. But once you’re over the hump and back to normal, does email ever really loosen its grip on our working days (or, for that matter, our supposedly restful nights)?

As previously explored in our post about stress at work (tellingly one of the two most-read articles in the history of this Blog), email is a widely recognised workplace stressor.

The UK-based Future Work Centre’s ‘You’ve Got Mail!’ study, released in January, called into question the culture that has developed around our constant access to email communication.

Almost half of the 2,000 working people the study surveyed reported having their emails automatically sent to mobile devices (a comprehensive statistical report recently suggested a similar proportion of email users are mobile globally), and 62% left their email on all day. The habit of checking emails early in the morning or late at night was directly linked to higher levels of stress and pressure.

Subsequently, as if on cue, psychologists from the University of British Columbia delivered research findings in February indicating that a limit on the frequency of checking email throughout the day reduces stress.

In one week, the 124 adults participating in the study were only allowed to check their email three times a day. And in another week, they could check their email as much as they liked. In the week of limited use, participants were found to experience significantly lower daily stress levels.

Coincidentally enough, after I finished commiserating with my shell-shocked back-to-workmate, I sat down at my computer to discover a link in my daily newsfeed to a Blog post entitled ‘Are emails getting in the way of great work?

Its author is Jason Fox, a self-described “motivation design specialist who shows forward-thinking leaders around the world how to unlock new progress and build for the future of work”.

In his Blog, he proposes a tantalising prospect: “Imagine work… with no email!” But as he himself ultimately concludes, this is a forlorn hope.

He chronicles his own efforts to remove the inbox-albatross from around his neck. Internal emails, he suggests, could be eliminated through the use of one of the ever-expanding variety of workplace social networks, such as Yammer.

For external-facing emails, he refers to a seemingly endless array of ‘apps’ he uses to filter his email correspondence and prioritise it for later action – “the hilarious adventures of Dr Fox and email”, which ends up resulting in… more emails.

Personally, I can think of nothing worse than adding further to my already tangled web of social media networks, apps and technological devices. Surely these have only served to build upon the crushing time-consumption that email started. So where does this all lead us?

To yet another Blog – one of the truly viral variety.

Almost five years ago, TED curator Chris Anderson posted a Blog about the relentless tyranny of email overload. It pinpointed a key cause of the problem: “The total time taken to respond to an email is often MORE than the time it took to create it.

Bemoaning a range of bad habits we’ve all been guilty of in our email composition, he proposed the creation of a ‘global email charter’, whereby “a community needs to come together and agree new rules… that can reverse the escalating spiral of obligation and stress”.

The first, fundamental rule he proposed was: “Respect Recipients’ Time – as the message sender, the onus is on YOU to minimize the time your email gobbles at the other end – even if it means taking more time at your end before sending.”

Anderson proffered the concept to his online community for feedback and suggestions, and the resulting 10-point email charter is now available online for all to commit to. It makes for interesting reading.

As the authors of the ‘You’ve Got Mail!’ study suggested, “the habits we develop, the emotional reactions we have to messages and the unwritten organisational etiquette around email (my emphasis), combine into a toxic source of stress which could be negatively impacting our productivity and wellbeing”.

Perhaps the email charter can be a useful starting point in overwriting the ‘unwritten organisational etiquette around email’ at play in our own workplaces. What do you think?

Is email overload a genuinely serious issue in your workplace, or in your life? Has it been addressed by any formal or informal measures? Share your ideas and experiences below, and get a conversation started, respecting recipients’ time of course…

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Graham Turner is the former Editor of Ai Group's Industry magazine, which ceased publication in 2014. He now edits (and moderates) this Blog, together with Ai Group's weekly Email newsletter.


  1. Julie

    Great you’ve inspired me to add even more email addresses to the auto-junk pile.

    I would love to email your ’10 point email charter’ to my team and colleagues, but I fear that would break the charter!

    1. Graham Turner (Post author)

      I think you could be excused in this instance Julie!

  2. Paul McPherson

    The return to work email saga causes stress for many even before they get a chance to see it. The issue often is the way it is perceived and regarded as a first day back write off.
    So change that view and take the challenge – now you have had a rest, reflect on “what was I thinking” and unsubscribe to all the junk you get daily.
    De-clutter your day and empower yourself to have just one valuable subscription that adds value to you, get on with the job and enjoy what you do best!

    1. Graham Turner (Post author)

      Thanks for your comment Paul. Certainly not a bad way to approach the return-to-work blues – and I assume that “one valuable subscription” refers to Ai Group’s Industry newsletter! 🙂


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