Erik Van Alstine

Erik Van Alstine

Author. Leadership strategist. Expert in Perceptual IntelligenceTM.

Stressed about work? Maybe it’s email.

If you’re stressed and exhausted at work, chances are good the culprit is email. It’s time to do something about it and re-energize work life.

It starts by understanding how oppressive email truly is. Several weeks back I wrote about the massive rise of personal written communication. I went back to 1986, when the average person wrote a personal letter once every couple weeks. They spent about thirty minutes per month writing. Most communication was verbal, not written. People talked instead of writing, since talking is quicker and easier.

Thirty years later it’s a different story. The average worker spends about fifty hours a month writing email and instant messages. That’s a hundred times greater than 1986. “The [annual] word count is roughly equivalent to a novel that is 166 pages long,” writes The Atlantic contributor Megan Garber, “which means the average email output is slightly greater than The Old Man and the Sea and slightly less than The Great Gatsby.”1

Add in the fact that writing is harder than talking. It taxes the brain and exhausts us quicker.

Is it any wonder we’re worn out from work?

Despite this hundred-fold-rise in written communication, there’s still a social obligation to keep up with demand. People expect us to write back and if we don’t they’re upset. It’s like we’re factory workers strapped to the assembly line, even though the production quota is up a hundred times.

This is wrong. We need to get people off the assembly line. “Every few years there’s a hot new management strategy that promises to make employees happier,” writes Time magazine’s Susanna Schrobsdorff. “But while employers may have improved the office itself, they have not solved the stress of leaving it: the crushing tide of emails and IMs, which – thanks to the rise of smartphones – can yank us back to work, anytime, anywhere.”2

Some companies are trying to liberate workers from the burden:

  • Daimler offers workers a software tool that automatically deletes company email while employees are on vacation.
  • The French government passed a law giving workers “the right to disconnect,” outlawing any requirement that workers answer off-hours email in companies larger than fifty people.
  • Volkswagen disables corporate email service for some workers during off hours.

But this only addresses the after-work problem, not the during-work problem. We need to cut email down at least ten times to get back to balance.

Back to off-hours email, others say it gives them freedom to do their jobs from anywhere, improving their quality of life, so it’s not a problem a simple policy can solve.

The key is for leaders to change the culture of social obligation by showing how burdensome written communication is,  develop strategies to reduce email ten-fold, stop requiring email responses, and give workers the right to disconnect.

1Megan Garber, “You Probably Write a Novel’s Worth of Email Every Year,” The Atlantic, January 8, 2013.
2Susanna Schrobsdorff, “There is no right way to unplug from work,” Time, January 30, 2017, p. 19.

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