Mal Fletcher
Workplace Emails: Unhealthy?

Should we ban out-of-hours emails?

Comparing an email to a snail-mail letter, author Douglas Adams said: ‘It’s quicker, easier and involves less licking.’

Anyone who remembers what the world was like pre-email, will attest to the fact that it has made life easier on so many levels. But is email taking over more than its fair share of our lives, especially given our tendency to surrender private time to processing work-related missives?

Today the University of Sussex in Britain released the results of a new study into whether workplace emails are harmful to most people.

The study concluded that company bans on workers’ accessing business emails after hours could do more harm than good to employee wellbeing.

While blanket bans, it said, could help workers achieve certain goals, they might slow the progress of other workers who prefer to set their own targets.

The debate on the potential for out-of-hours email engagement to harm mental health and relationships has raged for some time. In 2017, the French government responded to this by enshrining a law based upon what some commentators called the ‘right to disconnect’.

It insisted that companies recognise a worker’s right to disengage from work emails outside office hours, by centrally switching email accounts off a short time after the end of a shift and restoring them slightly before the start of the next day’s shift.

Some German car manufacturers have since adopted similar measures.

There is little doubt that for some people, restrictions on workplace emails would be counter-productive. Some workers are extremely well-disciplined and less inclined to over-use work accounts when they might be spending time with family and friends.

For highly motivated workers, including the self-employed, the idea of restrictions of any kind is anathema. Being one’s own boss, of course, renders the idea of company restrictions obsolete.

Most people, however, don’t own a business. They’re not entirely free to establish their own rules or priorities about work-related emails outside of office hours.

If the company for which they work presents them with no clear guidelines, they’ll likely take their cues from the dominant culture beyond the workspace. Sad to say, in most large urban centres today, that culture tends towards digital overload.

Sixty per cent of Brits who own a smartphone say they check emails immediately before going to sleep and just after waking up. A large part of the email traffic is work-related.

Meanwhile, sixty-five per cent of British CEOs feel pressured to work on weekends, because of the presence of digital connectedness.

The brain needs downtime, an opportunity to evaluate what it is learning and build it into long-term memory. If that doesn’t happen, new stimuli can’t spark future innovation and an overload of data presents challenges to performance levels.

People working for employers need to be given, at the very least, clear guidelines as to what is expected of them it comes to work-related emails.

Without that, we’ll see increasing levels of cognitive dysfunction and lower levels of productivity in offices and factories. It is estimated that digital engagement costs US business at least $31 billion per year in lost productivity.

The problem is not with email technology itself. More than 2.6 billion people use email worldwide. It has helped open unprecedented opportunities for mass innovation and the open-sourcing of solutions.

The challenge we face lies in how to make the best use of email, without allowing ourselves to be drawn into a situation where technology becomes the master.

Studies have shown that an over-engagement with email in the workplace leads to higher levels of distraction. In one study involving a leading London office space, it was found that when a worker, seated at their desk, opens their email account, it will take, on average, eleven minutes for them to be distracted by their emails.

It will take them, on average, thirty minutes to return to what they were doing before and there’s a forty per cent chance that they will never get back to what they should have been doing.

This is exactly the type of distractedness the French law was intended to prevent. It also recognised that such things as flexitime and paid vacation time, which we take for granted, were hard-won workplace rights.

The gains workers have made concerning hours of labour might effectively be wound back, if we accept too much in terms of digital engagement outside business hours.

There is evidence today that the way we use email is changing, in line with our experience of social media. Younger workers are using email in the way they would once have used Twitter - in a short-burst, stream-of-consciousness fashion.

So, instead of one email dealing with a range of points, we have a stream of emails, each dealing with just one point. This conversational approach creates even more challenges with crowded inboxes and a greater opportunity for clutter, distraction and, inevitably, frustration.

To avoid that, company leaders need to develop clear in-company guidelines and skill-sets to help steer their people away from technological pragmatism, where we simply do things because the technology makes them possible.

Leaders and managers need to ensure that their performance metric systems take account of the fact that people will not necessarily be willing to respond to emails after hours.

I welcome the University of Sussex study. I welcome any reputable survey that adds to our understanding of how a growing digital engagement affects our thinking and behaviour.

However, the researchers have suggested that the way people prioritise their email engagement is linked mainly to their personality type and their priorities.

I can’t accept this - people’s approach to after-hours emails is also impacted by their workplace culture and not everyone is free to shape their working culture. 

Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

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