By Deanna Parkton and Ed Hunter
Do you find yourself rechecking your email over and over, waiting on a response to an important issue? Click after click, your nerves and anticipation build as your email reloads, waiting for the response that is nagging at your mind.
Take a moment and think about your body’s response to this situation. Your heart is racing, your stomach might be in a knot or full of butterflies, your chest may be tight… essentially, all symptoms of stress. While you might lay the blame on the problem related to the email (which contributes, of course), it is your expectation of a response which is ultimately driving your stress.
Yes, it’s you.
There is something to be said for the days of yore, when we had no choice but to wait for an answer. If we called a friend and left a message on their home answering machine, we might not expect an answer for a while because we realize that they might not be home. Knowing that we most likely will not receive an answer until a future time period, it allowed us to live in the moment and push the issue to the side for the time being.
We are living in the age of instant gratification.
The internet came into mainstream popularity around 25 years ago, and our need for instant gratification has slowly grown and become a part of our cultural fabric. The emotional response that email and other forms of instant gratification online (social media, online shopping) bring us can be addictive.
There have been numerous articles and studies done researching the dopamine effect and our interconnected lives. Essentially, the brain identifies patterns that bring us rewards and give us a hit of dopamine based on the behavior. Our bodies are seeking out the dopamine for our “next hit” using the same behavior that gave us a surge of dopamine previously. Thus, we keep refreshing our email or reloading our social media newsfeed. While there are many rewards associated with our internet usage, there are also negative benefits of this addictive behavior, notably stress.
Work Email – Friend or Foe?
Email used in the workplace is certainly a helpful tool. It has increased efficiency with a quick exchange taking the place of a meeting that might otherwise drag on. It also allows us to communicate with our colleagues no matter where we are physically. It could be argued that it is the most valuable and widely used form of communication of our modern time.
But email can also add to our daily work stress. Have you ever had the following thoughts over the course of the work week?
- I’ve been so busy that I haven’t checked email since this morning, I hope there isn’t an emergency waiting for me.
- So-and-so is expecting an answer from me, but I haven’t had a chance to write back because it requires a long, thorough and thoughtful reply. I hope they aren’t annoyed with me.
- If my boss emailed me and I haven’t written back, they are going to assume that I’m not working.
- So-and-so’s tone was a bit abrasive in that response. Am I just reading into it or are they upset with me?
- So-and-so didn’t understand my response to their email and now it’s causing more confusion. I’m not sure how to move forward from here.
We could probably go on and on… .
This is not a case against email in the workplace. But it is a case in support of using email more thoughtfully.
Running away from email is not the answer, as “just turning it off” can actually produce more anxiety or withdrawal, worrying about what emails are coming in. The answer is actually changing our attitude when it comes to email.
Notice your physical reactions
A study out of University of California (UC) Irvine recorded subjects’ heart-rate variability (a technique for measuring mental stress) while monitoring the employees’ computer use. They found that the longer one spends on email, the higher stress levels go.
By noticing how our bodies react when we are working with email, we can take steps to combat the negative stress on our bodies and minds. Consider taking some deep breaths or doing a calming meditation before opening your email box. By going into a possible stressful situation with a clear and focused mind, you are more likely to minimize a physical stressful response.
Strategies to manage email
A common strategy around managing email is only allowing a certain time per day to check email. For some, they will block the first and last hour of their day to review and respond to email. This is a strategy that may work for you depending on the volume of emails that you receive and the culture within your company. For some people, this can cause additional anxiety. The UC Irvine found that “for people who scored highly in the trait of neuroticism, batching emails actually made them more stressed, perhaps because of worry about all of the urgent messages they were ignoring.”
The researchers also found that when stressed, people answered emails more quickly and often with less care. They used a text-analysis program that found that the e-mails were more likely to contain words that expressed anger. Another study found something similar: feeling overwhelmed can lead to a lack of self-control, taking more risks when you should be more cautious.
A common takeaway regarding email is that companies should make a concerted effort to encourage cutting down on email. What small steps might you be able to contribute to decrease email?
Things you can do to contribute to a positive email culture
- Pick up the phone or stop by a colleague’s office to connect. Sometimes the back and forth of email to resolve an issue causes more stress, than if you had just picked up the phone to discuss the issue and resolve it immediately.
- If you find yourself writing a long email that requires a lot of explanation, schedule a meeting instead of expecting an answer via email. Consider sending an introductory email with the general context of the issue, letting them know that you will provide more detail when you meet.
Based on the request via email, you can give your colleague the option on how they want to address the issue (email, phone or meeting). Giving your colleagues options on how to tackle an issue is a great way to provide balance and support for one another. This sense of freedom will surely be well-received if your colleague has a big week of meetings coming up but has time in the moment to chat via phone to nip the issue in the bud.
Make email work for you, instead of the other way around.
By being diligent in how you work with your email box and how you communicate with your colleagues, you can take steps to decrease the mental and emotional load of constant email communication.
For more ideas on how you can manage your day-to-day work stressors, consider working with a career coach. A coach can help you identify strategies to face workplace challenges head on. Check out our executive coaching services and sign up for a free consultation here.
Deanna Parkton is a writer, career coach and educator with a passion for professional development and work wellness and happiness. With a focus on self-reflection, she works with individuals in their quest to reach their career goals as well as satisfaction in work-life balance. You can find more of her writing at workinglivingwell.com and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ed Hunter is a Professional Career and Executive Coach and principal of Life in Progress Coaching. He is certified by the international Coaching Federation as a Professional Certified Coach.. He is also a Certified Executive and Leadership Development Coach. Ed has coached over a thousand professionals to create authentic careers and balanced work lives, and has a special interest in career development for adults with Autism. To connect with Ed, schedule a free consultation here.