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Don't let e-mail run your work life

By Eliza Ridgeway for CNN
Researchers say it isn't the amount of e-mail you get, but what you do with it that determines workplace anxiety.
Researchers say it isn't the amount of e-mail you get, but what you do with it that determines workplace anxiety.
  • Bursting e-mail inboxes can be a big distraction at work
  • E-mail overload can affect your productivity and stress level
  • It's not how much e-mail you get, but how much time you spend responding to it that matters, researchers say
  • Directing e-mail senders to reach you by phone outside of business hours can work as an instant filter

(CNN) -- Is e-mail overload distracting you from more important tasks, like focusing on how to get that promotion you've had your eye on?

A new study suggests the way you approach electronic communication in your life can affect your stress level -- and in turn, your performance -- on the job.

Researchers at Stanford and Boston University have found that it isn't the actual amount of e-mail you get, but what you do with it that matters when it comes to making you feel behind or out of the loop in the workplace.

In a forthcoming article in the journal Organization Science, they say that although people focus on the amount of e-mail they receive at work, what really matters is how much time they spend responding to it.

"People who got stressed out had to spend a lot of time reading it and writing," Stine Grodal told CNN. She's a professor at Boston University's School of Management and authored the study with Stephen Barley and Debra Meyerson.

"The way that it piles up makes us believe that e-mail is the enemy, the thing that is driving us crazy," Grodal said.

The way that it piles up makes us believe that e-mail is the enemy, the thing that is driving us crazy.
--Stine Grodal
  • Business
  • Worklife
  • Stress
  • Mental Health

The typical corporate user sends and receives roughly 110 e-mail messages a day, and nearly early one-fifth of those messages are unwanted, according to research firm The Radicati Group.

Grodal's study, which tracked the e-mail behavior of workers at a Fortune 500 technology company in the United States, found that if people tweak their habits, they can reduce the workplace anxiety caused by e-mail overload and improve their productivity.

As more professions require constant monitoring of e-mail, the old advice to "just turn it off" just doesn't cut it, she said.

"This is all real work. It's OK to spend an hour a day on e-mail -- it's just something that you have to do. But you can reduce some of the time that you spend," Grodal said.

Filtering technology can help cut down the amount of time spent on keeping inboxes clear, she said. But many people still aren't comfortable using this in a business setting.

People are afraid of things falling into folders where they can't see them. "If it all gets dumped into the inbox, people can skim and say, 'There is something very urgent here,'" she told CNN.

In order to keep e-mail from running your work life, professionals may need to fight the pressure to fire off speedy responses, says Will Schwalbe, co-author with David Shipley of "Send: The Essential Guide to E-mail for Office and Home."

"When we answer e-mail too quickly, we set up accelerated expectations and doom ourselves to a lifetime of instant responding," Schwalbe told CNN.

People need to be honest with themselves, he said. "Is it you who is being compulsive or does your job actually require it?"

In order to keep messages from building up, Schwalbe suggests people use an out-of-office notifier that directs people to reach them by phone after regular business hours.

Grodal said that people in her study who adopted this strategy found that co-workers had such a strong sense that out-of-hours phone calls were intrusive (while e-mail was not), that this became an effective filter.

Pushing your correspondence off e-mail and onto the phone can carve out distraction-free time by playing on the fact that calls are considered weightier impositions.

"Even if you give out your cell phone number, people will feel like, 'Ugh, should I really call her?' They'll only do it if it's really urgent or they'll wait. But you're still instilling a sense that you're available," Grodal told CNN.

E-mailing can be time consuming, but research has shown that the real workplace time drains are teleconferences and meetings, she said.

But there is a storm of emotions surrounding e-mail, which is why it can seem so overwhelming and pose such a distraction at work.

"E-mail is very emotional. We have a lot of feelings around e-mail," Grodal said. But changing habits and can spell relief for many, whether in the form of less stress or freeing up time to pursue other tasks, she said.

How do you handle e-mail overload at work? Share your tips in the comments section below.