The ultimate office communication aid, e-mail has undoubtedly
transformed work culture, but a lack of
control over the inbox has led to it becoming more of a hindrance than a help.
We look at how training can help reduce the stress associated with e-mail
use. By Miranda James
After only a few years, it seems impossible to imagine life without it. How
did we cope before e-mail? Letters were written, faxes sent, memos circulated.
People had to go to the lengths of telephoning each other or scheduling
meetings, often trying to synchronise multiple diaries, to agree actions and
get things done.
E-mail has become such an integral part of organisational culture, it is
almost invisible. Documents that need to be sent out often go, at least in the
first instance, as e-mail attachments.
Answering a pile of e-mails becomes the first task in the morning. We find
ourselves developing relationships with colleagues we know only through e-mail.
Its speed and ease are revolutionary. Looking at the anachronistic processes
that preceded it, it is logical to assume that e-mail must be saving the
workforce a massive amount of time. There must be productivity gains that are
off the scale.
The irony is that in many cases, the opposite is true. What is being
increasingly recognised in many organisations, is that e-mail is no panacea and
can give rise to its own set of unique problems. In some cases, simply dealing
with the e-mail tide is a significant workplace stress in its own right.
The strain of keeping up
Taking the Strain, the Institute of Management’s report, published in
February 2000, shows "keeping up with e-mails" as the tenth most
stress-inducing activity in a survey of over 800 UK managers. Its position in
the rankings nudges e-mails into the "high pressure" zone, above
factors such as "relationship with boss". But in the
electronically-dependent workplace, bad e-mail practice is also more than
likely to contribute to the three most stressful factors in the study –
"constant interruptions", "time pressures and deadlines"
and "poor internal communications".
As the report points out, the perennial obstacle to tackling stress in the
workplace, particularly among managers, is the "macho" culture of not
admitting weakness or to a sense of being unable to cope. On top of that,
separating out e-mail from a raft of other general stressors, and dealing with
it as a phen- omenon in its own right, is less likely when stress is coming
from several directions at once. Bad e-mail practice may be identified during
an internal communications audit (one of the recommended remedies in Taking the
Strain), but because it is a technology-related problem, there is often a
perception that the problem belongs to IT, not to human resources.
Research published this year by San Francisco-based consultancy Ferris
Research, shows that using e-mail typically saved workers in the US 381 hours a
year. But conversely e-mail also lost the average user 115 hours a year – for
example, through wasted time dealing with e-mailed irrelevancies. The study
came out with an overall net benefit – 266 hours – but the "two steps
forward, one step back" route to that result is disturbing. Ferris
concludes that companies need to develop and communicate clear policies on
e-mail distribution lists, indiscriminate copying and personal e-mails.
Learn the rules
The realisation being made by HR departments which do invest in specialised
training, is that ignorance of simple communication rules can tip the balance,
taking the e-mail load from manageable to unbearable.
"There is definitely an increased awareness about the effect e-mail is
having on our working lives," says Granada Media training officer Jane
Foston. In April the company commissioned a course in e-mail practice from
London-based Team IT Training.
For Granada it wasn’t evidence of stress that prompted the course, but an
awareness of the exponential growth of e-mail that was circulating. Overload –
"simple volume issues" – was the most prevalent problem, Foston says.
"There was also a tendency to keep checking e-mails all the time, which
can be disruptive when trying to get work done."
The training highlighted a lack of awareness about how e-mail was received
and the flow-on effect once the "send" button had been hit.
Gratuitous use of "cc"ing (copying multiple people into e-mails) was
a key problem. Often staff were not using the subject field properly to convey
the message content, and simple rules like writing in capitals (shouting in an
e-mail) were identified.
"The training really challenged people to think about whether e-mail
was the best way to communicate rather than picking up the phone or going to
see them. Are we just clogging up the system by sending e-mails
Following the training, says Foston, there was a sense that gaining greater
knowledge of the medium saved people stress, giving them a new power over their
"It can be relentless," says Hammersmith and Fulham Council direct
services personnel manager Lorna Garrett. "People report leaving the
office, then finding a massive number of e-mails waiting for them when they
come back in."
The council ran training sessions for 55 direct services managers, mainly to
address potential legal issues with e-mails passing frequently to external
contractors. In the process it found that managers needed to implement basic
communication rules to keep their e-mail load under control.
Over-copying, using subject fields appropriately, using acronyms to denote
the level of urgency and the tone of the e-mails themselves were addressed.
"There was a lot that needed to be done in the way that e-mails came
across. It is an informal, casual medium and there are issues of
professionalism. We had to smarten up our act," Garrett says.
According to Marc Powell, director of Team IT Training, the lack of a
communication "code of practice" is a major factor in e-mail stress.
There are formulae and protocols for using the telephone and letter writing,
but when it comes to e-mail, such codes don’t exist. This, plus the rapid
growth of the medium – with thousands of inexperienced e-mail users are coming
on stream all the time – compounds the problem.
Good and bad practice
Bad e-mail practice, particularly among management, can be not only irritating
but destructive, he says. In one organisation Team IT worked with, a manager
e-mailed staff at the start of the week about a team meeting on Friday in which
he was to deliver "the good (or bad) news". He was then on leave for
the rest of the week. What he thought was tongue-in-cheek humour in his e-mail
was taken as a negative portent by his staff, who were utterly demotivated and
expecting the worst.
The urge to copy an e-mail to multiple people, either to win favour with
management or cover oneself, is one of the worst factors in overload, Mr Powell
says. "It can send all sorts of ambiguous messages. People think ‘Why do I
need to know this?’ and assume some action is required of them. It causes
confusion and untold unwarranted stress."
Over-zealous copying is top of the list of e-mail "don’ts". Other
common bad habits include confusing or unclear subject lines; tagging e-mails
"urgent" when they aren’t; forwarding e-mails with old messages still
to be sifted through; scolding or arguing via e-mail; replying to the whole
group in receipt of an e-mail instead of just the sender, and sending
unnecessary attachments. But the critical issue in e-mail overload is simple
overuse. In many instances, people send e-mails as a first action rather than phoning
or physically meeting.
"The language that many managers use about their e-mail speaks
volumes," says Team IT director Bob Halliwell. "It is the language of
Common phrases are "I can’t do without it", "I need my e-mail
fix", "I’m addicted". Many of the senior employees they work
with, he says, check their e-mails compulsively and reply to all of them as
soon as they come in. If the managers who are most susceptible to overload want
to reduce stress, the onus is on them to drive the change that will prevent it
in the first place.
E-mail etiquette: do’s and don’ts
– Develop clear guidelines for the organisation
– Set up central intranet folders for non-critical social/personal e-mails
– Set up filters and folders to group e-mail by subject and priority
– Use notes and acronyms to indicate how critical an e-mail is
– Use a salutation and sign-off
– Put a clear message in the subject field – even avoiding body text if possible
– Send an e-mail if you wouldn’t bother saying the same thing on the phone
– Copy people into e-mails unnecessarily
– Forward e-mails that still contain old, irrelevant messages
– Forward attachments where an html link can be used instead
– Reply to an entire group if you only intend it for one person
– Use capital letters unless you’re intending to convey a "shout"
– Allow your inbox to become more than one screen-full
– Send an angry e-mail