Email and smart phones can be stressful. Academics are calling this constant work connection “technostress”. Consequently, many European countries are now offering employees the “right to disconnect”.
The way email is used is complex, it cannot simply be labelled as “good” or “bad” and research shows that personality, the type of work people do and their goals can influence the way they react to email.
Good practice with email use is not just about limiting the amount of emails sent, but improving the quality of communication.
Here are ten tips to reduce the stress of email at work:
1. Get the subject line right
Use clear and actionable subject lines.
The subject line should communicate exactly what the email is about in six to ten words, to allow the recipient to prioritise the email without even opening it. On mobile devices, many people only see the first 30 characters of a subject line. So keep it short. But make it descriptive enough to give an idea of what the email is about from just the subject line.
2. Ask yourself: is email the right medium?
Are you in the same office? Could you go and speak to the person? Could you call? Often these other forms of communication can avoid the inefficient back and forth of emailing.
Instant messaging and video calling platforms like Slack and Skype could be more appropriate for quick internal back and forth messaging. Also, remember that most of the advice below applies to all types of electronic communication.
3. Don’t email out of office hours
Research shows that out-of-hours emails make it harder for people to recover from work stress.
Try and influence your company culture by avoiding sending or replying to emails outside your normal working hours.
Management should lead by example and avoid contacting their staff outside of their normal working hours. Some workplaces even switch off email access to employees out of hours. Consider implementing this while keeping a backup phone system for emergency contact only.
New research has also shown that just the expectation of 24-hour contact can negatively affect employee health.
4. Use the delay delivery option
Some people like integrating their work and family lives and often continue working from home during their off-job time. If you are one of these people, or if you work across time zones, consider using the delay delivery option so your emails do not send until the next working day and do not interfere with other people’s off-job time.
5. Keep it positive
Think about the quality of email communication. Not just the quantity. Changes to email use should also focus on the quality of what is being sent and take into consideration the emotional reaction of the recipient.
Research suggests that conflicts are far easier to escalate and messages to be misinterpreted when communicated via email. Therefore, if it is bad news, think back to rule #2: is email the right medium?
6. Try ‘no email Friday’
In order to shift company culture and get people thinking about other methods of communication than email, try a “no email Friday” on the first Friday of every month, or maybe even every week. This is an initiative suggested by experts from the National Forum for Health and Wellbeing at Work, and is being used by businesses around the globe. Employees are encouraged to arrange face-to-face meetings or pick up the phone – or just get on top of the many emails they already have in their inbox on that day.
7. Make your preferences known
Research has shown that not only too much but also too little email can cause stress due to a mismatch between the communication preferences of different people. Some people may like being emailed and cope much better with high email traffic than other means of communication. For these people, reducing the amount of emails they receive may cause more stress than it alleviates.
So consider people’s individual differences and make yours known. Add your preferred contact preferences to your email signature whether it is email, text or instant messages or a phone call.
8. Consider a holiday ‘bounce back’
Having a backlog of emails that builds up over the week appears to be one of the most commonly mentioned sources of technostress for workers. Think about setting up a system where emails are bounced back to the sender when someone is on holiday, with an alternative contact email for urgent requests. This would let you come back to a manageable inbox.
9. Have a separate work phone
Make this the only mobile device you can access work emails on, which gives you the freedom to switch it off after work hours. Also consider turning off email “push” (this is where your email server sends each new email to your phone when it arrives at the server) and instead choose a regular schedule (such as once per hour) for emails to be delivered to your phone (this also increases battery life).
10. Avoid late night screen time
Research suggests that late night smart phone use reduces our ability to get to sleep and also leads to constant thoughts and stress about work. This in turn reduces your sleep quality. Make the bed a phone-free zone to improve your sleep hygiene.