Work Emails - A Scourge On Productivity

With an estimated 269 billion emails sent this year, is it time to just…stop?


One of the few things that bind almost every office employee, irrespective of industry, country or age is…

A thorough hatred of work emails.

It's universal. And the hate is real.

At dinner with some friends in PR one of them told me with a straight face, ’you take out work emails and you free up about 70% of my work day.’

And while that might seem excessive, the numbers across the board are staggering. According to Sanebox, we spend nearly 30% of our work hours just dealing with emails. That means in an 8 hour day, we spend 2.4 hours of it is just reading, replying, deleting or forwarding emails. Carleton University conducted a survey of 6 organizations and found employees receive on average of 86 emails while at work and 25 at home. And unless your job solely revolves around reading and replying to emails, you’re not really doing any actual work, despite that super productive feeling you get when you clear out your inbox. Most of the time you’re either just checking and refreshing your inbox, reading an email you were CC’d on for no discernible reason or absentmindedly perusing a particularly colorful piece of spam.

Worse yet, all these emails are literally making us all sick. In that same study, they found dealing with emails was demoralizing employees so much, it was leading to workers taking more sick days and 1 in 5 were actively considering leaving their jobs.

However, I’m not saying anything you don’t already know. I’m sure you’ve all experienced the torment of needing to reply to an unimportant email whilst at the dinner table with your family. But that's just part of work life, right? We have to send emails all the time or the economy would grind to a halt as communication between all factions of society ceased…right?

Well, possibly not.

Research has shown that the multitasking required to check our inbox the average of 36 times a day is making us all crappy workers. We find it harder to focus on tasks as the second we receive an email an internal stopwatch begins to count down, even when the email isn’t urgent. If you have a staff of 20 people and they are all shedding a 3rd of their time dealing with emails, that is an incredible amount of time being wasted on ‘busy-work’.

Multiple studies have been conducted which prove this fact to staggering effect. Researchers from the University California and U.S Army blocked email access for 13 information workers and measured a bunch of metrics.The filter they used to block the emails simply stored them for later and stopped notifications pinging. After only 5 days, the workers stress and heart rate levels had reduced significantly and all had adjusted their behaviors and got around the lack of access to emails by either talking more on the phone or face-to-face (both demonstrably more effective ways of communication). Apart from one worker, they all spent more time in one computer program at a time, indicating that they were able to focus on their actual work more. The workers all reported feeling more relaxed, focused and productive.

Another study conducted by the University of British Columbia over 2 weeks split some volunteers into 2 groups. The ‘unlimited email condition’ group were allowed to look at their emails as much as they wanted, as standard. The other ‘limited email condition’ group were only allowed to check there emails 3 times daily and the rest of the day had no access to their inbox.

The results were almost identical to the first study, the group that had limited email access all reported feeling less stress and being more productive.

So while this all might seem a bit of a crazy idea, some countries are actually working on some form of legislation to start to curb the scourge of work emails. In January of 2017, the French government passed laws preventing employers from contacting their workers during their leisure time and required employers to negotiate specific hours of engagement and hours when employees were not required to check their inbox. The idea was to promote a sense of work-life balance. And while France is so far the only country to actually enact a law regarding this, content manager at Monster Canada, Arturo Gallo, believes its something companies should start seriously considering. ‘As employers, we should encourage our employees to disconnect on weekends and vacation time,” Gallo said. “Work will always be there and the emails aren’t going to go anywhere.’

We all forget that despite the internet and email being so ingrained in our work and life these days, in a lot of ways, we are still in the Wild West of the digital age. Much like the idea of a minimum wage or defined work hours were all laughed at as industry killers before enacted, the way we deal with email will sooner or later, need to be addressed. Because when you are depressing your employees whilst simultaneously lowering productivity, one has to wonder, is this really the best way?

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