EMAIL INTERVENTION CAMPAIGN

 

 

America Wants Email Limits,  Disconnect Zones for After-Hours and Vacations

Everyone knows message overload is out of control, maddening, and undermining productivity. Yet it's only getting worse. We launched the Email Intervention Campaign to call attention to how unbounded email—and all-hours email availability—is impacting work-life balance, stress, and quality of life. The goal is to spark a national conversation within offices and without and offer strategies that can help take on the digital elephant in the office.

As part of the effort, we conducted a survey to measure the state of the email battle millions face every day. We aren’t talking about the quaint days of a single email channel anymore. Our survey found that 71% of American workers contend with more than 3 different messaging platforms and apps—texts, Whatsapp, Slack, Teams, Base Camp, and more. Some 28% have more than 5 messaging apps. There aren't enough hours in the day or bandwidth to deal with it all.

In the survey, 93% of Americans say they are doing work email after work, which is crowding out work-life balance and driving stress. "The survey shows that clearly it's time for solutions to the overuse of messaging," says Joe Robinson, a work-life and stress management speaker and consultant at Optimal Performance Strategies, which conducted the survey with Pollfish. "Americans desperately want something done on email volume and excess contact—for their health, home life, and work too," says Robinson, author of the new book, Work Smarter Live Better.

What We Found in Our Email Intervention Survey

The results of our national survey of 400 U.S. office professionals, conducted by Pollfish, show support for limits across the board on email availability and volume. It also sheds light on the pressures of constant contact, on where the obligation to be always available, even on vacations, is coming from, and on the mental health impacts from stress and work-life conflict brought on by email overload.

EMAIL CONTACT AFTER WORK

• 88% of workers in the survey say they strongly agree, agree, or somewhat agree that there should be a right-to-disconnect law to limit email contact after work

 87% believe there should be a company policy to disconnect after work, except for emergencies

• 93% check, read, or respond to work email outside office hours

 73% say they spend at least an hour after work on email and work message platforms per day, with 46% averaging more than 90 minutes

 Almost half say email and message contact after work has reduced family and personal time

WORK EMAIL ON VACATION

 90% of those surveyed say employees should be free to not check email on vacation, with 45% strongly agreeing

• 88% say that permission to not check email on vacation should be written into the company’s vacation policy, with 74% strongly agreeing or agreeing

• 84% say they check work email on vacation

• The Number One reason those surveyed check email on vacation is the fear of losing their job

 95% say they would like a system such as German automaker Daimler has, which deletes all email going to someone on vacation, with 41% strongly agreeing

25% have not taken a vacation because of a fear of too much email when they get back, while another 34% shortened a vacation because of email fears

EMAIL, HEALTH, AND REMEDIES

• 90% say that email overload is causing moderate to high to chronic stress

• 49% say too much email has resulted in reduced personal or family time

• The top choice for fixing the email problem is "defined boundaries, rules, and norms," followed by "defined availability"

SURVEY METHODOLOGY

Optimal Performance Strategies and research company Pollfish conducted a survey of 400 office professionals across the U.S. on April 20, 2023. The participants were 50% male and 50% female and ranged in age from 25 to 54-plus. The survey had a margin of error of +/- 5%.

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The Cost of Unbounded Email

How Email Sabotages Work, Focus & Health

It’s not just email volume that’s the problem. It’s also what the email process does to your mind, memory, attention, survival equipment, productivity, and life balance. Too much email is an equal opportunity wrecking ball, taking down all the things you need to think clearly, be productive, and access the living you are making for yourself.

The email problem is an interruption problem and a vastly increased workload problem. Interruptions have big impacts on your brain and thinking, and so does the additional workload that research shows swamps in through email. Let’s take a look at some of the side effects of this reflex behavior.

  • Working Memory. Also known as short-term memory, working memory is what we use to do anything in our workday or life. And it’s very short. We can only hang on to 3 or 4 thought chunks for only a few seconds. Interruptions blow up tenuous working memory. After the interruption you have to spend time to piece together where you were and where you were going, which slows things down and cuts productivity.

  • Attention. When your working memory is disrupted, attention is too. Focus is scrambled as you jump to another task. With less attention and more stress from the notification that has set off the startle response, you are prone to more mistakes, like sending email with missing attachments. Research by Altmann and Trafton found that an interruption of just 2.8 seconds doubles the risk of errors, while an interruption of 4.4 seconds triples the risk. How many times a day do we have interruptions much longer than those?

  • Impulse Control. Interruptions also undermine attention in a more insidious way. They erode the part of your brain you need to stay disciplined and on task, your impulse control mechanism, located in the effortful control portion of your executive attention function. The more you check email the more you have to check it. Too much email causes you to lose the ability regulate your impulsivity, self-control, and self-regulation. You self-distract, fall behind, and productivity takes a dive.

  • Productivity. Email and the interruptions it causes has a huge impact on productivity beyond the impacts on attention, working memory, and impulse control. Studies have found that excess email and messaging increases workload. When you have to respond to the whims of hundreds of people not using email effectively and requests for urgency that aren’t urgent, that adds plenty of work to the pile that wouldn’t be there otherwise. Most of us spend one third of our day on email. Some of that is necessary, but a big chunk isn’t. Intel did a study that found that email overload costs a company with 50,000 knowledge workers $1 billion per year in lost productivity. 

  • Stress & Burnout. Eighty-nine percent of survey respondents said that email drives stress. There are many reasons why email is the biggest stress driver at work. Interruptions make anything you do seem harder than it is, report  Bailey and Konstan, increasing aggravation 106%. The stress response is triggered by anything we perceive is beyond what we can handle. That is the definition of dozens, if not hundreds of emails, that we have to respond to. Overwhelm is instant survival time. The sound and light circus of notifications play to a survival instinct, the startle response, which kicks in when there are potential threats to life in the form of a threatening sound, flashing lights, or, it seems to think, the danger signal of notifications.

Brain and impact of email

Key Studies on Email Impacts

If everyone knew what the scientists do about email use and abuse, there would be a lot less of it avalanching on us. Yes, email is handy, and we enjoy its ability to reach out to anyone at anytime. But too much email overwhelms everything in its path, including productivity.

University of California Irvine informatics professor Gloria Mark, one of the top researchers in the field, says that email is now the most stressful part of the workday and that the more of it you do, the more stress you have and the less you feel you have accomplished by the end of the day.

We want to help you make your case for an email intervention with your team and organization. Here are some key studies that demonstrate why we need rules on unbounded devices and messaging:

Email Duration, Batching, and Self-Interruption: Patterns of Email Use on Productivity and Stress,” Gloria Mark, Shamsi T. Iqbal, Mary Czerwinski, Paul Johns, Akane Sano. 2016.

Benefits and Stressors: Perceived Effect of ICT Use on Employee Health and Work Stress: An Exploratory Study from Austria and Hong Kong.” Katharina Ninaus,  Sandra Diehl, Ralf Terlutter, Kara Chan, Anqi Huang. International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-Being,” October 2015.

"A Pace Not Dictated by Electrons: an Empirical Study of Work without Email. Proceedings of the CIGCHE Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. " Gloria Mark, Stephen Voida, Armand V. Cardello. May 2012.

Understanding Email Interaction Increases Organizational Productivity.” Thomas Jackson, Ray Dawson, Darren Wilson. Communications of the ACM, 2003.

The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress.” Gloria Mark, Daniel Gudith, Ulrich Klocke. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 2008.

Momentary Interruptions Can Derail the Train of Thought.” Erik M. Altmann, Gregory Trafton, David Z. Hambrick. Journal of Experimental Psychology, Feb. 2014.

Switching On and Off...Does Smartphone Use Obstruct the Possibility to Engage in Recovery Activities?” Daantje Derks, Lieke L. ten Brummelhuis, Dino Zecic, Arnold Bakker. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology,” Dec. 2012.

“Addicted to Technology.” Nada Kakabadse, Gayle Porter, David Vance.  2007

Inhibitory Mechanisms and the Control of Attention.” Lynn Hasher, Cindy Lustig, Rose Zacks. APA PsycNet, 2007.

"Smartphone Use, Work-Home Interference, and Burnout: A Diary Study on the Role of Recovery." Dante Derks and Arnold Bakker. Applied Psychology, 63 (3), 411-440, 2014.

Measuring the Effects of Interruptions on Task Performance in the User Interface.” Brian P. Bailey,  Joseph A. Konstan, John V. Carlis.  Proceedings of the IEEE International Conference on Systems, Man and Cybernetics, 2000.

Finding Time, Stopping the Frenzy.”Perlow, Leslie.  Business Health, Aug. 16, 1998.

Mobile Technology Habits—Patterns of Association Among Device Usage, Intertemporal Preference, Impulse Control, and Reward Sensitivity.” Wilmer, Henry H. and Jason M. Chein. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 2016.

Effective Control of Cognitive Processes in Task-Switching,” David Meyer and David Kieras. 2001.

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Email Intervention Solutions

How You and Your Company Can Get Email Under Control

The humans are allowed to create rules, strategies, and norms to organize the effective use of devices and technology. Luckily, there are ways to do this. Accepting more and more messaging platforms without thinking about whether they add value or just more time to go back and forth with colleagues and clients doesn't makes sense.

The goals for the intervention are to cut message volume, interruptions, stress, and points of contact in processes and systems that lead to email overpopulation.

EMAIL OVERLOAD SOLUTIONS

Email Training. Email, messaging apps, and texting swamped in without any rules of the road. We all dove into the deep end and have been dog-paddling ever since.

Email training for every employee gives everyone vetted tools to use messaging in a sustainable way. We would all be on the same page, all united to limit the amount of messaging.

Cap the Number of Message Apps. How many channels of messaging are viable? Because we can add them doesn't mean we should. Limit these message multipliers.

Cut Email Contact Points in All Processes. This means redesigning how work and projects move along the line. Strip down the number of times things can only move forward with an email. This will take time, but it's worth it. Analyze all the workflows and projects from top to bottom. Remove as many email points as you can.

Reduce the Number of Approvals. One of the ways to cut email contact points is by changing the approval system. Free up individuals and teams to have more responsibility by streamlining the approval processes. This will not only reduce email, it will also increase two core needs we all have, autonomy and competence, which build engagement. 

Shift to Project Management Apps. One of Joe Robinson's clients, JamesandMatthew.com, an ad agency, was able to get rid of almost all informal conversation via email with Base Camp, a project management app that leaves next and finished task descriptions on color-coded boards. Author and Georgetown professor of computer science Cal Newport cites in A World Without Email several examples of companies that solved email overload with virtual board apps Trello, Asana, and Flow.

Start a Team Email Intervention. Start small and think big with a team email intervention. Harvard's Leslie Perlow has shown that teams focused on collaborative goals and structured dialogue can shatter overwork norms while increasing productivity and work-life balance. Cut email volume and availability, bring in the best practices, and create a success story that can spread to other teams and the whole company.

Slash the Amount of Email Checking. For all who can, reduce the interruptions by having a set schedule to check email. You turn off email and turn it back on when you schedule it, say, four times a day or hourly. It beats the 96 interruptions from email a day that happen if you have your device checking every five minutes. Researchers at Oklahoma State say four and two times a day are the most productive. Start with once per hour.

Turn Off Notifications. The chimes, dings, and visual notifications set off a survival instinct, the startle response. That drives stress and emergency thinking. Turn off notifications and check mail on your set schedule.

Align Expectations with Others. Let others know that your response time isn't instant, and that office hours are the best time for contact. When you can give colleagues and clients the most realistic turnaround times and what is reasonable availability, they know what to expect, and you have less stress and more life.

Create No-Interruption Zones.  Leslie Perlow's great study on what she calls "Quiet Time" showed what happens when we get time to work without intrusions. She showed that an 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. no-interruption zone (no email, messaging, phone) increased productivity 59%. The early focus zone led even to gains in the normal contact zone, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., in which productivity rose by 42%. A 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. no-interruption zone increased productivity a whopping 65%.

Confine Email to a Set Time Per Day. If your duties allow it, set up one time each day for dedicated email work. It's an idea Georgetown's Cal Newport repurposed from the "office hours" concept he and all professors use to meet with students. This turns the rest of the day into a no-interruption zone. The idea is to confine sending and receiving to a limited time, say, 90 minutes. This has two benefits, fewer interruptions from email and letting others know your email time is limited, so do they really have to send that email?

Get Price, Program Details

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Join the Intervention

We'd love to connect with you and your team or company to help bring an intervention to your office. Whether it's advice, research you might need to make your case (like the studies above), sharing success or horror stories about email, or an employee training, we would like to find a way to crowdsource attention and get the knowledge out to cut back the email kudzu. You can reach us at joe@worktolive.info

We offer employee training programs on smarter work practices that include email reduction strategies, email norms guides, and best practices. We feature information management tools in our Work Smarter Live Better work-life balance program as well as our Calm in the Storm stress management program. We also have dedicated Email Survival programs.

If you're interested, click one of the program buttons on this page. Let's think out of the inbox!

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About Joe Robinson

Joe Robinson is a work-life balance, stress management, and productivity speaker and employee trainer at Optimal Performance Strategies. His programs offer research-based tools to work smarter, manage stress, reactions, time, and devices, and improve mental health and quality of life. He has led programs for IBM, Amazon, Pfizer and Nestle, among many others.

He is author of the new book, Work Smarter, Live Better, a guide to navigating an unbounded world and information overload through mind, time, information, and stress management strategies from the workplace science. He has written for the Los Angeles Times, Fast Company, The Washington Post, Entrepreneur, Men's Journal and many others.

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Joe Robinson has appeared on and in:
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