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Too much e-mail distracts, costs companies in productivity
It’s Monday morning, and the first business task of the day
is plowing through one’s e-mail—all 256 messages that somehow accumulated over
a single weekend.
There are vendor pitches, IT updates, interview requests, a
boss’s assignment, a colleague’s question, meeting invites, meeting
cancellations, the “Thursday is window-washing” notice and the “Friday is
year, U.S. workers will receive 22 percent more business e-mail than they did
three years ago, and send 24 percent more, according to the Radicati Group, a market research firm. Steve Sims, founder of
the Redwood City, Calif.-based Badgeville's Behavior Lab, which analyzes workplace behavior
management, says business e-mail is on the rise for three reasons:
From a work perspective, e-mail serves an important
purpose—it can replace time-consuming meetings and phone calls, for instance. And
many people believe that replying quickly to e-mail sends the message that
they’re on top of things.
“People want to demonstrate value to their employer,” Sims
said. “When it comes to e-mail, people think, ‘Oh my gosh, if I don’t respond
they’ll think I’m not doing my job,’ or ‘Oh my gosh, they’ll think I’m not at
my desk.’ ”
Yet there’s plenty of evidence that e-mail can be a
time-hog that costs companies in lost productivity.
University of the West of Scotland researchers reported in
2006 that 64 percent of respondents to an online survey claimed to check their e-mail
once an hour, while 35 percent said they checked it every 15 minutes. In fact, the researchers
found, they were actually checking it much more frequently—about every five
A survey of U.S. workers released in 2013 by Opinion
Matters on behalf of GFI Software found that email
dwarfed other forms of office communication. Forty-four percent of respondents used email
at work more than any other communications tool, while 28 percent relied mostly
on the phone, 22 percent on face-to-face interactions, and 6 percent on instant
messaging. More than three-quarters of respondents said they typically replied
to emails within one hour during work hours, with nearly one-third saying they
replied within 15 minutes.
A 2006 Psychology Today article compared e-mail
addiction to drug addiction. Checking e-mail “mimics the path that a drug takes
through the brain,” the article quoted
John Ratey, a psychiatrist and associate professor at Harvard, as saying. Ratey
added that all the symptoms of addiction are present: “There's the dopamine rush with
the ‘ding’ of an e-mail alert, and there's the twitchy e-mail withdrawal during
the family vacation.”
David Meyer, a University of Michigan psychology professor,
found that people
who shift their attention between two activities—like writing an e-mail and
writing an article, for instance—spend 50 percent more time on these tasks than
if they’d finished one task before moving to the next. More recent research from the university found that distractions—even short ones lastign less than three seconds—can double the number of mistakes we make at work.
Dr. Thomas Jackson of Loughborough University, England, found
that it takes an average of 64 seconds to
recover one’s train of thought after interruption by e-mail. That means
that people who check their e-mail every five minutes waste more than eight
hours a week trying to remember what they were doing moments before.
Some people may believe that e-mail doesn’t cause
interruptions because a worker chooses when to check for and respond to e-mail.
But Jackson also found that people tend to respond to e-mail almost immediately
after it arrives, taking an average of one minute and 44 seconds to act on the
new message. Seventy percent of e-mail alerts get a reaction within six
Here are some suggestions for helping employees break the e-mail
Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
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