Email is a communication tool used globally, crossing industries, sectors and demographic groups. The first email system was used in mid-1960s at MIT; now in 2019, it is estimated that approximately 3 billion people use email, which is around 40% of the total global population.
Email is perhaps the most widely used business communication tool: around 90 billion business emails are sent every day, and the average office worker sends and receives over 120 emails per day. But are emails really creating more value for business? Or could it be causing more problems than it sets out to solve?
The Problem of Email Overwhelm, or Email Fatigue
“Like most tools, email is useful but it can become disruptive and even damaging if used excessively or inappropriately,”Russell Johnson
In a work context, fatigue is mental and/or physical exhaustion that reduces your ability to perform your work safely and effectively. Fatigue can be caused by various factors including sleep loss and/or disruption of your internal body clock, excessively long shifts and insufficient work recovery time. Modern use of computers and phones have added additional factors for fatigue into the mix: a UK study into screen time at work has revealed office workers spend an average of six and a half hours a day at their computer or laptop, and research from Harvard shows that the blue light from computers and phones can affect your sleep and potentially cause disease.
The billions of emails being sent on a daily basis are also contributing to office workers’ fatigue, in a problem colloquially referred to as email fatigue, or email overwhelm. The consequences of all of this email include stress and resultant health issues, reductions in productivity, leadership problems, and ineffective communication.
Inbox Overwhelm is making people stressed
Multiple studies have been conducted and reports written on how email affects the stress levels of workers. A 2017 survey by Edison Software of over 1000 US participants found the following:
- 32% of participants said they receive over 100 emails a day;
- 33% said they felt stressed when the received too many emails;
- Almost 50% of participants said ‘inbox overload’ caused them to worry about missing important emails.
Email is bad for productivity
Only 25 percent of email is considered essential for work purposes with an additional 14 percent categorised as being of ‘critical importance’.Mimecast
- On average, employees check their email 36 times an hour which amounts to 288 times a day for an eight hour work day
- 44% of people in the 2017 Edison Software Survey said they spend hours a day deleting emails they don’t want
- Employees spend more than 90 minutes every day – or seven-and-a-half hours every week – recovering from email interruptions
- It takes employees around 16 minutes to refocus on their tasks after handling email.
- Most emails received at work are not essential for work: only one in three emails in business inboxes hold real, immediate value.
Email is a universal tool, with universal context – which creates ineffective communication
Email can be used for anything and everything. Need to share a document? Email it. Ask someone a question? Email it. Send meeting notes? Email it. Invite someone to a social event? Email it. Email is like a multi-tool – sort of useful for a number of situations, but not specialised towards any of them.
Email is a universal tool, but there are no universal expectations surrounding how or when people should be using it, with many people checking email outside of working hours. A study by Good Technology found:
- 38% of employees routinely check work email at the dinner table
- 50% of employees check their email while still in bed
- 69% wouldn’t go to bed without first checking their email
Too Many Emails are Making you a Bad Leader
Being reactive to any email that hits your inbox is like playing a never-ending game of whack-a-mole, distracting you from taking pro-active action.
“When managers are the ones trying to recover from email interruptions, they fail to meet their goals, they neglect manager-responsibilities and their subordinates don’t have the leadership behavior they need to thrive.”Russell Johnson
How Do We Solve the Email Overwhelm Problem?
Some suggest that time-boxing email use could be the answer to reducing email overwhelm: research from Michigan State University suggests people should be checking their emails less frequently, setting aside specific times to check emails and thus avoiding the consequences of constant context-switching and interruption recovery.
Ultimately, there is no one approach that will suit everyone, as stated in the 2017 Edison Software Survey:
It became apparent that there is no one-size-fits-all set of strategies that improve both people’s productivity and well-being across job roles and industries. For example, a strategy such as catching up with email outside of work hours might help people feel more in control of their work, but it does not tangibly reduce work overload – and can create conflict in families where work is brought home.2017 Edison Software Survey
Based on the research, there are huge implications for productivity and leadership in environments where email is used as a primary business communication tool. It is however, still a relevant technology – it remains the easiest way to reach anyone you might want or need to do business with, as everyone has an email address.
Perhaps then, there are better options to complement email-based communication and reduce some of this overwhelm.
The Overwhelming Inbox vs Contextual Communication
While email has become an incredibly useful tool for workplace communication, it doesn’t do much to account for different individual styles of communication. Email also isn’t very good for contextual communication – it blurs the line between task-oriented communication and people-oriented communication.
“Too much of workplace communication exists without context. A message ping arrives out of the blue, and it takes time to work out what the person needs and what next steps to take. Hence, endless threads and back-and-forth.”Redbooth
Within TCPinpoint, we’ve taken a task-oriented approach to the internal communication on our platform. Team members collaborate and communicate around individual pieces of work, on a single task page dedicated to the checklist of conditions, documents, team members, conversations and activity for that particular action. For example, in a Concept Design Submission and Approval task, specific parties (such as designers, project managers and leasing executives) might discuss relevant information about the progress of the designs and their , share relevant documents, and find up-to-date information and answers to questions about that piece of work.
All of this information in one place means that team members know where to go to find what they’re looking for, and aren’t distracted by unrelated items when they’re trying to focus on getting something done.
This kind of task-based communication and resultant record keeping means that the conversations that happen around a piece of work are stored in one place, which can be interrogated at a later date should queries arise. This also creates opportunities for high-level data analysis, as it creates a level of structure to otherwise unstructured discussions. In the case of TCPinpoint, all information is stored in a database, which means it can be retrieved and viewed in different formats, which can mitigate the risk of siloed conversations on team projects.
People oriented communication in the workplace may be best left to mediums better suited to long-form, such as email, as well as mediums that allow for more 1:1, like face-to-face meetings in person or video conferencing, or in ‘chatting’ formats like slack messaging or social media. Within our own internal software teams, we use a combination of Slack, Jira, Google Hangouts, TCPinpoint, ZenDesk, Intercom, face-to-face meetings and workshops.
And yes, we do use email.
Clear and effective communication is one of the easiest ways to reduce workplace stress, boost productivity, and build better relationships with your coworkers.Fast Company
Ultimately it is becoming clear that email as a catchall communication tool is causing more stress and reducing productivity, and that teams and organisations can be doing more to utilise more contextual communication methods and clearly setting expectations around them.