Email, Work, and Stress: Looking Beyond the Inbox

in Faculty, News, Strategy & Innovation
December 15th, 2010

Stine Grodal, Assistant Professor, Strategy & Innovation

Stine Grodal, Assistant Professor, Strategy & Innovation

Strategy & Innovation Assistant Professor Stine Grodal ’s new article, “Email as a Source and Symbol of Stress,” written with co-authors Stephen R. Barlye and Debra E. Meyerson from Stanford University, is garnering considerable attention across both the leadership field and the twitterati. Recently featured on CNN, the paper is forthcoming in Organization Science, one of management’s leading academic journals.

“Admitting that e-mail serves as a symbol of general overload implies that [merely] redesigning e-mail’s features or changing how people use those features is unlikely to reduce the stress associated with it.” 
–From the paper “Email as Source and Symbol of Stress”

A reporter for Builders & Leaders, the School’s magazine, recently sat down with Grodal to discuss her new work.

B&L:Your new research focuses on email and stress, and you arrive at the conclusion that email has become “a red herring.” You write that interview subjects “singled out email as a cultural symbol of the overload they experience in their lives, independent of the amount of time they spent working,” or, presumably, even emailing.

SG: One of the key takeaways from our study is that email is a “symbol” of stress—it is not always the thing that actually makes us stressed. We attribute all of our emotions to email, because it is visible, and so many of us have opinions or feelings about email and the role it plays in our lives.

Email just catches our attention; we feel absorbed by it so it is easy for us to put all the blame on email instead of understanding the deeper, underlying causes of our overload.

We also found that it is actually not the number of emails that people handle that made them stressed out—it is the time that they spend on email. So, for instance, if you are merely on a lot of email lists that brief you about something, this might not be a bad thing. But if you have to spend a lot of time writing emails, this is what usually leads to stress.

Why has email become so emotional in the workplace, or come to represent the general experience of work-overload, even when, as you found, it’s frequently not the direct cause of that overload?

“The [actual] extra time people spent working did not [impact] the relationship between e-mail and the experience of overload. Instead, e-mail appeared to be related to stress, regardless of how many hours respondents worked.” 

–From the paper “Email as Source and Symbol of Stress”

We found that the material properties of email are what cause it to create so much emotion for workers: it builds up and creates a “to do list” in your inbox. Phone calls, for instance, do not have this property.

So while, in actuality, it might be all the time we spend on the phone that is really eating up our day and making us overloaded, we tend to attribute our feelings of overload to the email that is piling up while we are on the phone.

Furthermore, it is not even email itself that is the problem but the norms that are set around email. That is, handling email is an organizational problem, not just an individual problem.

In what way is email an organizational problem?

Let’s take global teams, for example, which rely heavily on email, usually in the context of organizations with some firm expectations around e-communication norms.

From an email perspective, the largest problem with global teams is that when you combine the time difference with the norm of responding to email within a short window of time (let’s say 2 hours), then people will be pushed to answer email from home and outside of work hours.

“The larger problem: unrealistic expectations about response time. To the degree that e-mail’s symbolic force diverts attention from the stress created by the demands being placed on a downsized and globalized workforce, it serves as a red herring.” 

–From the paper “Email as Source and Symbol of Stress”

The only solution to this problem is to change the norms around email.

I think managers need to be more aware of the norms that are set around email within the organization and how these norms are affecting their workers’ work-life balance. Managers need to realize the temporal sequence of work on global teams and make sure that the norms around how global teams communicate are created in a way that also take workers’ work-life balance into account. An example would be setting a precedent that you do not need to check and respond to email after hours.

The same holds true for respecting work-life balance and creating manageable norms in teams that are not global.

Any last words for the stressed-out emailers among us?

One of the key takeaways from our study is that people need to look “outside the inbox” for reasons to manage their stress. What other things are you spending your time on? What is crowding up your day in a way that allows email to pile up?