New research finds that we’ve been thinking about email all wrong. Commonly-held beliefs say that email is a time-suck on our energy and souls, a disruptive distraction from the real work we should be doing. But a new literature review of 42 studies on work email found that most work email is actually relevant to our jobs, and that we should be tackling it right away for our own peace of mind.
Led by Dr. Emma Russell, Head of the Wellbeing at Work Research Group at Kingston Business School in London, the review found that “although allowing ourselves to continuously be interrupted by email has been shown to negatively impact productivity, limiting access to it also has negative implications, namely because of the build-up of tasks in the inbox.” In the empirical studies the report reviews, Russell found that “the incidence of non-work-critical email at work appears to be very low.”
In other words, email remains the superior form of work communication, so employees need to learn strategies to manage it before it manages you.
Here are her research-backed takeaways on how employees can take back control of their inbox:
1) Address emails as they come
To decrease email stress, some CEOs prefer to check their emails once or twice a day, but the WWK Research Group found that this can be counterintuitive for many employees working in environments where email is seen as critical to the job. When you work for an office that requires active use of email, the report finds that “actively engaging with our email across the working day” can reduce employees’ stressful sense of overload.
How active do you need to be? The report suggests checking your inbox every 45 minutes during the workday. And actively engaging doesn’t just mean looking at your new inbox count with mounting dread, it means addressing these emails. File away for later, respond, or delete. It not only helps you do your job more efficiently, it help you feel better about doing your job.
2) Turn off email alerts
The ping or push notification of a new email alert doesn’t actually help us feel more on top of things. As neuroscience research reminds us, we’re terrible at task-switching, and the more we do it, the higher our stress levels rise. When you read an email alert, you’re self-interrupting yourself and making it harder for you to get back on task. By turning off email alerts and making time to deal with emails at regular intervals, the report found that employees feel more in control.
3) Delay emails sent after hours
The working world runs on emails, but digital boundaries need to be set for your workers’ lives outside of the office for everyone’s sanity. By using “delay send” features on emails, emails can be addressed but not delivered. The report finds that these flexible email options send a message to your subordinates that “work-life boundaries are clarified and respected.”