Stress at Work: The Overloaded Inbox

Modern technology is meant to make life easier, and while in part it does, it is also the cause of a lot of stress, especially at work.

E-mail is just one of those technological achievements.  While it is great to be able to contact someone quickly and is environmentally friendly, it also adds a lot of pressure and expectation which can mean that our minds are never ‘off-line’.

As a recipient, you can get overwhelmed with the volume of e-mails, and as the sender, you can get angry quickly because you expect a fast response, and don’t always get it.

“All those e-mails you don’t have time to deal with could be making you ill” says an article on the BBC website today.  Research has been carried out at the University of Manchester to prove this, which is great because we can’t do anything these days without scientific proof.

BBC E-mail Article Image

It is ironic that for decades we have looked for ways to speed things up, and now we are coming to realise that speed isn’t everything, and in order to safeguard our mental health we need to slow things down a bit.

The problem with everything being so fast is that we don’t have time to breathe, let alone act.  E-mails are a great way to communicate, however it means we have lost respect for others time and space.  We expect an immediate answer, and if we don’t get one we follow it up with another e-mail; maybe this time copying in the world so that everyone can see how bad the person is at their job.

Other forms of communication give you some breathing space, but with e-mails you sometimes get a response in seconds, and no matter how hard you try, you can’t ignore the popup window that tells you they have answered, sucking you into that one conversation whilst the rest gets put on the back burner,

It’s not just the speed of e-mail that is a problem, what we write and how we write it can also have a huge impact on mental health.  How many e-mails do you get where people don’t even say ‘hi’ they just go straight for the kill; no fluffy small talk here…..

You can guess how the other person is feeling by the text in front of you; the use of capital letters to EMPHASISE A POINT AND SHOW HOW ANGRY YOU ARE was one of my personal favourites to receive from people.

Shock - Photo by Gem & Lauris RK on Unsplash

Some people also respond so quickly that spelling and sentence structure goes out the window, to the point that you need a code book to understand what they are trying to tell you.  Ask for clarification and you are just poking an already angry lion.

As you may have guessed from my writing, e-mail was one of my main stressors at work.  I was in a position where I had quite a few angry people chasing after me.  One memorable period was sorting out someone’s inbox after they had been ‘let go’.  The person in question had a habit of not deleting e-mails from her inbox so there were literally hundreds, some had been dealt and some had been missed in the haystack, which meant there were some very annoyed people out there.

I reached a point where I was scared to open my e-mails because I knew there would be a lot of shit to deal with and I just could not see how it was going to get better, it was one thing after another. I would try the old trick of e-mailing the worst people just before I ran out of the office; but all this did was delay the inevitable and it often meant I would dwell on stuff overnight.

I never felt in control of what was happening; it felt as though it would be easier to find the Holy Grail than to get on top of the e-mails, and an empty inbox was something mythological.

For some, the work e-mail problem is not just confined to the office; it follows them everywhere they go, on their phone.  In 2017, the French government passed a law requiring French companies to guarantee their employees a “right to disconnect” from technology.

Mobile - Photo by Luis Villasmil on Unsplash

This new legislation did not go down well with everyone, especially those workers who deal with overseas companies and whose hours are not exactly 9 to 5 (does anyone actually work these hours anymore?), but at least the government acted, and sometimes forced action has to be taken in order to protect people, especially if their companies are not going to take responsibility themselves.

Some companies have tried to make a difference; a BBC article from 2014 showed how German vehicle-maker Daimler implemented a process to help deal with e-mails while people were on holiday.  Employees simply set the following out of office message before they left:

I am on vacation.  I cannot read your e-mail.  Your e-mail is being deleted.  Please contact Hans or Monika if it’s really important, or resend the e-mail after I’m back in the office.

This system meant that their employees didn’t have to wade through hundreds of e-mails when they returned to work; simple but brilliant.

The pure volume of e-mails that people receive means that the levels of service are probably worse than they used to be; I have sent a lot of e-mails to companies asking for support and sponsorship for my ‘Adventures of an Anxious Mind’ and more often than not I have not received a response, which doesn’t always make me feel great.

Logically, I know people are snowed under and receive thousands of e-mails like mine, but deep down inside I feel that maybe they think what I am doing is not important.  In a world where communication is meant to be so easy, you can still be left wondering if people really care or if you are being ignored on purpose.

I don’t think there are any easy answers to the e-mail problem; it has almost become an untameable beast.

Companies need to address it individually and find a model that fits their specific industry.  They also need to relax their service level agreements, don’t promise a response within 24 hours if it is not feasible; if you are going to promise this, then make sure the system is in place for the employees to be able to meet these standards comfortably, rather than setting them up to fail.

Work Zen

Whatever happens, the priority needs to be the mental welfare of the everyone involved.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.


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