Sock drawers reveal a lot about a person. Are the socks jumbled together or lined up in neat rows? Is the drawer a shrine to plain colours or are there daring patterns in there? And really getting granular, what do socks with holes tell us about the owner?
Amateur psychologists are welcome to knock themselves out analysing the personality traits implied in these descriptions, but World of Work needs to turn its attention to a growing problem with the workplace equivalent of the sock drawer: email.
As with sock drawers, some of us are very good at managing the contents of our email boxes and some of us are not. The neat freaks answer, flag, delete, trash and archive with military precision. The sock jumblers end up with an inbox bursting with unanswered messages.
It is estimated that 376 billion emails will be sent and received daily by 2025. So it’s hardly surprising that mail-related mental fatigue has become a recognised phenomenon
Although, that’s a bit harsh. Keeping on top of the daily digital bombardment is virtually impossible and that’s before other messaging systems such as Slack and Teams are included. In the interests of establishing how bad the email overload has become, we asked five professionals how many unread mails they had in their inbox. The lowest was 50,000. The highest half a million emails.
Email may have started out in the 1960s as a messaging system between those using the same computer system, but 50 years on it’s a dominant presence in many people’s lives. The number of people expected to use email this year is estimated to be more than four billion. That’s roughly half the global population.
The data and business intelligence platform Statista estimates that 376 billion emails will be sent and received daily by 2025. So, it’s hardly surprising that mail-related mental fatigue has become a recognised phenomenon that disrupts peace of mind and productivity.
US-born computer programmer and MIT graduate Ray Tomlinson is credited with kicking off email as we know it today. In 1971, he launched a programme that allowed users on different systems to send mail to one another. Then, from the late 1980s, email started to grow legs with the arrival of Eudora, Lotus notes and Microsoft Internet Mail.
Queen Elizabeth II was reportedly the first head of state to use email. She sent a message on Arpanet (the US Department of Defence system that became the technical foundation for the internet) in 1976.
In a straw poll of people’s biggest peeves about email, colleagues “covering their backs” by constantly CC-ing them on irrelevant correspondence tops the charts. People also took a poor view of those who “use CC as a weapon” to goad, shame or show off.
Long emails (cut and paste has a lot to answer for here) came in second while other pet hates include blank subject lines, emails marked urgent when they’re not and leaving the out-of-office response turned on after the stated return date.
Dr Emma Russell is the course director for the MSc in occupational and organisational psychology at the University of Sussex and also the lead author of a recent study, Getting on Top of Work Email. The study, which was published in the Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology in August, is based around action regulation theory or how we regulate our behaviour in the pursuit of different goals.
“In the last 25 years, work-email activity has been studied across domains and disciplines. Yet, despite the abundance of research available, a comprehensive, unifying framework of how work-email activity positively impacts both wellbeing and work performance outcomes has yet to emerge,” she says.
“On the one hand, research findings outline how work email offers a host of benefits for busy workers trying to organise and deal with their work in a convenient and flexible way. On the other hand, studies report that workers are tired of being tethered to their email, constantly interrupted by it and drowning under the weight of tasks to be achieved, and ambiguous messages to decipher.
“This is a timely and significant concern,” says Russell. “Work email is the most prominent and popular form of work communication but it is still unclear what people need to do to be effective emailers at work ... Our new research, based on a comprehensive analysis of 25 years of email research, shows that strategies to stay on top of work email don’t have to come at the expense of your wellbeing.”
Action three is to confine work-email to work-relevant communications and action four is to be civil, courteous and considerate in all work-email exchanges
To keep things simple, Russell and her co-authors have condensed their findings into four “super” actions or principles to guide the overburdened through the email maze with a view to reducing stress and improving productivity. “We hope this will help people to make use of the strategies that are most likely to work, whilst also enabling employers to foster healthier and more efficient email cultures,” says Russell.
Action one is to communicate work email access boundaries. “Clearly state when you are not available to deal with email, stick to this, and don’t email others when they are not working,” say the authors.
Action two is to regularly review your inbox and to delete, sort and reprioritise. Action three is to confine work-email to work-relevant communications and action four is to be civil, courteous and considerate in all work-email exchanges.
This last action is a point well made as it can save a lot of grief later on if an email fired off in anger is subsequently regretted or worse still it gets sent to the wrong person in the heat of the moment.