Research released at the end of last month reignited the debate about the place of emails in our working lives. According to Dr Juliet Jain more than half the 5,000 commuters she spoke to were using their train’s wifi to deal with work emails; and others were using their own mobile phone connections to do the same. Researchers call it the ‘AlwaysOn’ culture. They’re talking about the way mobile devices have made us available for work 24/7 – and it’s not good for our wellbeing or our work-life balance.
Since it was first introduced (over 25 years ago) email activity at work has been rising exponentially. According to Dr Richard Mackinnon up to 62% of our working time is now spent on email. Some – but by no means all – of it will be necessary for us to do our jobs. What is clearly also necessary is a better strategy for managing it.
According to Dr Almuth McDowall and Professor Gail Kinman managing technology should be a joint employer-employee responsibility. However their award winning research – conducted last year – revealed over half of employers have no work-life balance policy and provide no guidance or training on how to switch off. If yours is one of them, what can you do to prevent emails overtaking your life?
First of all, recognise that email management preferences differ. While some people would rather not use technology to work outside traditional hours; others welcome remote access and find working outside of traditional hours less stressful. According to Professor Jean-Francois Stich most of us are unaware of our colleagues’ email management preferences and therefore unable to appreciate how our own expectations impact on them. It’s important to understand other people may not share your preferences for volume and timing of emails. Have a conversation and agree some ‘ground rules’.
Secondly, use ‘microboundaries’. Professor Anna Cox defines these as strategies we can put in place to mitigate the negative impact of potential work-life conflicts – such as receiving a work email at the weekend – so we feel more in control. Anna groups these into four categories:
· Digital – such as having separate accounts and/or applications for work and personal use;
· Physical – such as deciding when not to wear a smartwatch or carry a device;
· Temporal – such as enabling ‘do not disturb’ mode at night;
· Social – such as disabling notifications when out for dinner.
Finally, an experiment conducted by Martin Pielot and Luz Rello found even a single day with notifications switched off can be long enough for people to notice positive effects. While participants in the experiment were worried about being less responsive and more anxious about what they were missing; they also found they were less distracted and more productive.
After the challenge the majority of participants said they would change the way they managed notifications. Surprisingly half had continued this two years later: suggesting that even a short break can be a powerful way of changing our habits.
Anna Meller is a Chartered Fellow of the CIPD and one of the UK’s leading experts in re-balancing work. https://www.linkedin.com/in/annameller/