The Link Between Email and Stress – And What to Do About It
Your inbox need not be a source of anxiety, because you control it, not the senders.
“Hi! I’m just following up again on the email I sent last week!”
“Just bubbling this back to the top of your inbox!”
“Kindly circling back on this to check in with you.”
If salutations like this cause your chest to tighten and your teeth to clench, you are far from alone. These are, after all, the telltale indicator that you have unread, unaddressed emails sitting in your inbox, the follow-ups only adding to the clutter. And additional emails are the last thing in the world that you need, not when email was already causing you stress.
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And to be clear, for many people – especially those for whom a high volume of email comes with their profession – email is a genuine source of stress; we’re not talking about the source of a couple of groans. We’re talking about a cause of deep-seated human emotions including depression, anxiety, and even a fight or flight type of sensation.
You probably know intuitively that your cluttered inbox causes you some degree of stress, but we can look at the issue in scientific terms instead of the merely incidental.
Email Stress: A Physiological Problem
According to The New Yorker, a team of researchers recently conducted a study that proved a definite link between email and feelings of stress and anxiety. They outfitted a number of workers with remote, wireless heart rate monitors and affixed thermal cameras below the test subjects’ computer monitors, then the scientists stepped back to watch over the course of the next 12 days.
At differing times during the day, the heart rate monitors detected spikes in study participants’ pulse, while the cameras often detected sudden increases of heat in the peoples’ faces.
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An increased heart rate and the vascular dilation and rush of blood to the face causing elevated heat there are both known indicators of stress.
And what was happening when these people experienced elevated heart rates and flashes of heat? They were dealing with their email, of course.
Why Do We Get So Much Email?
Email is a cheap, easy, and quick form of communication, so it’s really no surprise that we get so much of the stuff.
Much of the email we get is semi-self-imposed. Every time you sign up for a new service, buy a product online, schedule a doctor’s appointment, you are likely subjecting yourself to more emails. You know it’s going to happen when you jot down your email address, but what’s to be done, not shop or schedule appointments?
When it comes to work, emails are simply par for the course; almost every time a colleague or client has a question, request, or idea, they are going to put it in an email. And this is true whether or not the issue really merited a note. Email is so fast and easy to use, and that’s why so many people send so many superfluous notes.
Then you have the forwards from your friends and family. And, of course, you have all the spam email.
Higher volumes of email lead to lower quality work
Beyond the stress reactions email can cause people to feel, excessive email also causes a reduction in quality of work. As your emails stack up, you will invariably begin to send shorter, less well-reasoned, and ultimately less meaningful replies.
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And your colleagues will do the same; ironically, this can lead to more email, not less, as the shorter, incomplete replies require more back-and-forth, while fewer, more thoughtful emails could have closed the loop.
Then there is the chance that, as your inbox clutter grows, you may miss an important email or two among the many missives. And, of course, there’s the fact that while you are reading, replying to, or composing emails, you’re not doing any of your other work.
The Costs of Employee Burnout – For the Worker and the Business
An excessive volume of email is a major contributor to employee burnout, which can take the form of a worker calling it quits and leaving his or her job or an employee who stays on in their role but without any of the enthusiasm or devotion that can make them productive.
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In the latter case, the worker is no longer effective, thereby reducing their value; in the former case, the employee is gone and needs to be replaced, a drain of time and resources for the employer.
For the worker feeling overwhelmed by email, the effects can be an increase in depression and anxiety, sleeplessness, irritability, a lack of focus, and an overall reduction in physical wellbeing and in happiness.
How to Reduce the Email Burden
Excessive email in your inbox is a major problem, there’s no denying it. But remember, this is your inbox: you can take a large degree of agency over how many emails you get, not to mention how and when you deal with them.
The first step to take in reducing email stress is to reduce email volume. Taking a few seconds to unsubscribe from every unwanted email subscription you can will save you great amounts of time in the bigger picture – this will be an ongoing process, and the sooner you start it, the better.
Next, you need to deal with the emails already in your inbox. It may seem counterintuitive, but find a chunk or two of time usually not devoted to email (say, Saturday morning or Sunday evening) and take the time to check all those unread messages, reply as needed, delete anything not needed, and organize the emails you do need to deal with logically, creating folders within your email account.
After that, you can kindly but clearly begin to communicate with the people who send you the most email that you are seeking a reduction in email volume and ask them to instead call you or to at least try to send fewer emails that cover more topics with greater thoroughness. Even making a request like this can put someone in the mindset to only send emails when they’re truly important.
Finally, establish email-free times and male it known they will be followed, plus commit to following them yourself. You can put an automatic reply “away” message on your account any time you want, not only when you’re on vacation. This not only allows you to truly separate yourself from your email at times, but again can help condition the people; sending you all those emails to take a step back. They just might end up developing a healthier relationship with email themselves.