E-mail has become the scapegoat for worker stress and lost
productivity. Is the criticism fair?
I commented on new research just released in a London Times
story about stress. While reading the story (and being asked to
comment on it during an interview), I could not help but think
that I heard this story before. In the late 1980s and 1990s,
voice mail was the catalyst for all things wrong in the
workplace. Employees and managers alike would complain about
spending an hour or more checking for messages and beginning a
game of phone tag with the caller. Many callers even described
the experience as entering "voice mail hell."
But is technology the culprit or just the cover-up for another
case of communication being used badly. Before email, we had
voice mail and fax machines and just the plain old spoken word.
How much has been written over time about workers wasting time
around the water cooler? And in meetings? And on the phone?
How much time is lost every day listening to people who talk too
much …. or too fast ….. or too loud ….. or about everything but
What it all comes down to is this: communication. To be more
exact, it's the misuse and ineffective use of the tools we use
to communicate with one another. Like every other form of
communication, email can be a magnificent tool when used
properly. When used improperly, it can become a dangerous
One thought occurred to me reading the Times story: how many
people are stressed out by other people checking their email.
For a significant segment of the population, email may in fact
be a de-stressor. Admittedly, it is disruptive and bad manners
to be checking email sitting in a business meeting, at the
dinner table, or in the theater. But is it checking email
that's the problem or is it your partners, co-workers or even
the guests at the next table who are stressing because YOU are
Here are a few common sense rules to help minimize email stress:
1. Tell others how you prefer to communicate – by email or phone
– and when you will respond. If you only check emails and voice
mails in the morning or at noon or the end of the day, let the
caller know. Let them know how they might reach you in an
2. Ask others how they prefer to receive and respond to
messages. If someone sends an email but you respond by phone,
the sender may not check his voice mail regularly or may not
have access to it. Likewise, the e-mail sender may be traveling
and not be able to respond easily or in a timely manner.
3. Use spam filters or use spam filtering software to cut down
on the number of emails you receive. But be careful to avoid
setting the filters so high that you block important messages.
Check your junk email folder periodically for good emails that
might have been blocked.
4. Set up a special private email account. Give it out to only
those contacts who can reach when an immediate response is
necessary. You can also use text messaging for this purpose too.