Sometimes the very technologies purported to make our lives easier and more productive backfire. As if we didn’t know! Now scientists have documented and reported on the effect – with email overuse and the need for 24/7 contact being one of the causes of stress at work. Now, a goal of changing our dysfunctional relationship with technology must be achieved.
In a new study conducted by researchers at the University of California, Irvine, 13 computer-utilizing office workers with job titles ranging from chemical engineer to psychologist to research administrator were evaluated for eight days with the aid or heart rate monitors and computer software sensors. The results, published in a report entitled ‘A Pace Not Dictated by Electrons: An Empirical Study of Work Without Email,’ were interesting, even if unsurprising.
The workers were first evaluated for a three-day period while they maintained normal work habits in order to establish baseline data. Interviews about current multi-tasking and email usage were also conducted during this time. Afterward, the same participants were monitored during a five-day period without access to email.
When the workers did not check email for five days, they showed more natural, variable heart rates as compared to the constant ‘high-alert’ patterns observed during the baseline period. It is notable that this ‘high-alert’ state is associated with elevated cortisol levels, which play a role not only in stress and nervous system responses, but also in metabolism, immunity, cardiovascular and bone health.
Workers without email access were also more productive and focused, switching screens on their computer desktops about 18 times per hour as compared to 37 when they were able to check emails.
Although they reported feeling better able to do their jobs and stay focused, participants did note that they felt ‘isolated,’ without email access. However, talking to colleagues in order to obtain information about important events within the office ameliorated this.
A 2007 study from Glasgow and Paisley Universities in the U.K. Monitoring 177 participants’ workplace email habits reported similar results, and came to a similar conclusion: trying to keep up with a stream of incoming mail interrupts normal work and leaves staff tired, frustrated and unproductive.
A BBC Technology article, appropriately entitled Turn off e-mail and do some work, discusses some of the companies that have experimented with periods of limited email access.
Semi-conductor chip manufacturing giant Intel instituted a ‘no e-mail day’ on Fridays (although this is somewhat of a misnomer, as email was still permitted) to encourage engineers to talk to each other face to face instead of through email. In a more structured attempt to foster the productivity that comes from focused work, Intel also set aside ‘quiet time:’ a half day a week dedicated to uninterrupted work in offline mode. After 7 months, the programs were evaluated, and while no-email Fridays were found- not surprisingly, based on their apparent lack of real structure- less effective, ‘quiet time’ was very well received, with over 70% of employees recommending the program’s extension.
Chief Executive of fulfillment firm PBD, Scott Dockter instated a no-email Friday in 2006, on the suspicion that over-dependence on e-mail was damaging productivity. After four months, the policy was considered a resounding success, promoting better teamwork, happier customers and quicker problem solving.
US Cellular and Deloitte and Touche have done similar experiments.
No one is suggesting writing off e-mail (pun intended) for good. Rather, as New York Times columnist Nick Bilton puts it, ‘Taking Email Vacations Can Reduce Stress.‘ And apparently, increase productivity- everyone wins.
On the other hand, Alan Elliot, director of business development of e-mail specialists Mirapoint. raises a solid counterpoint in putting forth an argument for consistent email behavioral modification, rather than occasional ‘vacations.’ “Instead of bringing e-mail to a grinding halt at the end of the week – which of course just means that most of Monday is wasted catching up – companies need to educate their staff on the appropriate use and management of e-mail.”
Gloria Mark, an informatics professor who has been studying the effects of e-mail in the workplace since 2004 and co-author of the Irvine study, agrees. “The fact that we found that people are less stressed when they don’t have e-mail shows that there are ways to change the way we use e-mail in the work setting. We suggest doing what we call batching e-mails, where organizations send e-mails once or twice a day, rather than continually, so employees know not to check their e-mail every 10 minutes.”
Whatever the appropriate approach, research confirms what most of us already knew. In the face of skyrocketing anxiety levels and ever-increasing workplace stress, something has to change. David Ballard, head of the American Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program, sums up the issue well. “While the study focused on email . . . it really got at some important issues such as multitasking, focus and being present at what we do on a day-to-day basis. It really highlights the importance of people not trying to do so many things at one time and being present at what they do.”