Less Work Email Equals Less Stress
May 7, 2012

Less Work Email Equals Less Stress

There are a number of ways to reduce stress at work, among them is one that most people probably wouldn´t think of as a stress reducer, but according to new research, removing email from employees´ workplace environment can reduce stress and allow them to focus and perform far better.

In a new study, conducted by University of California, Irvine researchers and the US Army, heart rate monitors were attached to computer users in a suburban office setting, while software sensors detected how often they switched computer windows. Participants were divided into two groups: the first group gave up email for five days, and the other continued using email with no interruptions.

The researchers found that those who continued to use their email changed screens (37 times per hour on average) twice as often as the control group (18 times per hour on average). Those who continued their e-mailing habits, kept in a “high alert” state, with heart rates reflecting that. Those who had abstained from email, had more “natural, variable heart rates.”

Also, those who did not use their email for the five-day period reported being more productive and were better able to remain focused on their job.

“We found that when you remove email from workers´ lives, they multitask less and experience less stress,” said Gloria Mark, PhD, Irvine informatics professor and co-author of the study, which was funded by the Army and the National Science Foundation.

That is a huge positive, she added, since stress itself has been linked to a variety of health problems, such as heart disease and depression. The findings concur with previous research that showed people with steady “high alert“ heart rates have more cortisol, a hormone linked to stress.

The findings could be useful for boosting productivity, she said, adding that employers may want to consider healthier options for their employees, such as controlling the amount of time workers spend logged-on to email.

“Email vacations on the job may be a good idea,” she noted. “We need to experiment with that.”

Mark noted that recruiting volunteers was a difficult task. But once she found the right group -- civilian employees at the Army Natick Soldier Systems Center near Boston -- she found they were much happier at the end of the five-day period. They “loved being without email, especially if their manager said it was OK,” she said. “In general, they were much happier to interact in person.”

Getting up and walking to someone´s desk to deliver a message offered physical relief to the participants as well, Mark noted. The only drawback the participant´s reported was feeling isolated, not being able to garner critical information from colleagues who were still using email.

Mark also noted there were other drawbacks as well. While email may be stressful, there really is no practical alternative to it. And it is possible, that being away from email for extended periods, could be more stressful for some people than being on it all the time. Plus, giving up email permanently could be more harmful than good for those who rely on it in the workforce. Abstinence from email is a decision that affects, by extension, anyone who might send you a message -- and anyone to whom you might send a message. In that sense, email is a matter of public health in the most literal sense.