Emailing less is possible, but not easy

Many people use email for work. It is convenient, but also a source of stress. Email can constantly distract you from other work and disrupt your free time. At the same, the workload in many sectors, such as healthcare, can already be high. Cutting back on email use can reduce stress. Researchers at Utrecht University have developed and tested a number of simple solutions with healthcare workers. A few adjustments can already make a change, they say, and not at the expense of your autonomy.

Focusing on your work can be difficult if you are distracted by emails. Your attention fragments, and we know that when you are in a flow, you perform better, says researcher Henrico van Roekel. And emails can also bother you after working hours, because notifications pop up on your phone.

In healthcare, the pressure is often already high so emailing should be a side issue for nurses and doctors. But actually it is often an additional source of stress.

What can help against excessive emailing?

To reduce email use, we looked at ’nudges’ as an alternative to traditional policy instruments, because these are not always desirable, says Van Roekel. We conducted a survey, did interviews and then started testing what might work.

First, we looked at what the effect is of leadership, for example a manager, saying: I’m going to email less, act like me!

’A lot of people use email as a direct medium of communication, although it was never meant that way. So people get stressed by that.

Henrico van Roekel

Then we experimented with ’rules of thumb’; not a rigid protocol but a lighter form. We noticed that in organisations it was sometimes unclear when an employee should use a certain communication tool. Everyone always used email, there were no agreements on when to call, email or send a WhatsApp, for example. A lot of people use email as a direct medium, even though it was never meant that way. So people get stressed by that. They have a lot of messages and they think they have to deal with them quickly.

How long can you wait for a reply?

So as a rule of thumb, we posed the question: ’how long can you wait for the response’’ Three scenarios are conceivable. If you need an immediate answer, then it’s best to walk by or call. If you can wait up to a day, then making contact via Teams or WhatsApp is the most appropriate means of communication. Can you wait up to a week, then email is the most suitable.

Finally, we have come up with some ways in which employees can help themselves and each other to mail less:
  • Indicate whether you expect a reply. Many employees don’t know if they should reply, so they reply just to be sure. You can solve this by always indicating whether you expect a reply. You can, for example, make it easy on yourself by putting the sentence ’you don’t have to respond to this email’ in your email signature, and remove this sentence when it doesn’t apply.
  • Don’t email directly. Employees often use email as an ’ad hoc’ tool: I have a question now, so I email immediately. This leads to a lot of email. The solution here is simple: save your questions. For example, wait at least an hour before asking your question. By then, there may already be an answer, or an additional question may have arisen. That could be a reason not to email, or it could be a better reason.
  • Don’t email everyone. A final challenge: the CC culture. Employees often email to several people, just to make sure the message gets to the right place. The solution for this: commit to always emailing to 1 person (unless this is really impossible, of course). This may mean that you may not immediately get the right person to answer your question. In that case, you have to email again, but the difference with an email to ten people at the same time is huge - because in that case ten people are already addressing your question right away.

Do not make it obligatory

The study shows that you can effectively reduce your email use through simple interventions like these, while maintaining autonomy, van Roekel, Giurge, Schott and Tummers conclude. People found the nudges tested did not violate their autonomy and worked better than some traditional policy tools, such as an email limit. Van Roekel: Sometimes it is not necessary to take rigorous measures if simpler and behavioural interventions also work. If there is something that you think could work for you, try it, and start tomorrow!

Or read the article by Henrico van Roekel, Laura Giurge (London School of Economics), Carina Schott en Lars Tummers, Nudges can be both autonomy-preserving and effective: evidence from a survey and quasi-field experiment in: Behavioural Public Policy (Cambridge University Press).

Go to the article (website Behavioural Public Policy)