Posted on March 15, 2017 by staff

Are your emails becoming a toxic source of stress?


When I worked with BusinessCloud editor Chris Maguire on Insider magazine we had contrasting views about the future of business: I thought it was all about people, he was gunning directly for technology.

And that is what you see today.

I have embarked on a new career helping businesses to improve through people and Chris has started this magazine to demystify technology for businesses.

Now 12 months on from going our separate ways, I think we are both right.

We live in a world increasingly dominated by technology, which moves at such a pace businesses are often confused; technology is shaping what we do, how we respond, and how we feel moment to moment – it’s creating a social experiment we are observing and researching at the same time.

But this has been happening for a while.

Take email for example: when people used to get in touch with Chris about stories, or tried to have a conversation about business, he used to say: ‘If you are just emailing, you aren’t having the conversation.’

He probably still is.

And that’s the point. We have one of the simplest inventions in the modern working environment, which was meant to be a great tool of productivity, but now seems to be one of the greatest stressors.

Organisations are dealing with email notifications becoming a ‘toxic source of stress’, according to a recent report from the Future Work Centre, and they are creating new rules for communication and holiday email etiquette to manage this.

Some companies report that staff spend 40 per cent of their week dealing with internal email. A lot of people tell me anecdotally how much they hate email.

People can feel a level of addiction as each notification triggers a reaction in our brains that then needs consistently feeding, so time off for some people can feel even more stressful.

Sending emails, too, can feel like a continual sense of achievement when they might be just be giving a hit to the reward centres of our brain, feeding a neural addiction. It also takes time to switch our attention back to the task at hand.

Email is useful for sharing information, allowing people to digest a request, set up a meeting and to keep in touch in our virtual global world.

But email can fall foul of a very basic human fact: that most of our communication is done through how we interact and interpret behaviours with others.

Without this level of social interaction, we can misinterpret messages, lose tone, and even the use of an emoji can be perceived as inappropriate.

We all receive information in different ways; our perception and ego can be a blessing and a curse.

Research from management professor Charles Naquin shows we can be less co-operative on email and it also can be harder to build rapport with others, according to psychologist Michael Morris.

Communication in modern business is essential for collaboration, innovation, creativity, decision making and engagement – it’s obvious technology can bring people together and facilitate some amazing outcomes.

But when people report that email is their biggest stress, and that it gets in the way of doing their job – you must at least ask the question… what are we doing wrong?

We are fundamentally social animals, and we will find ways of overcoming these shortcomings, because technology can be a great enabler: platforms including Slack and Yammer are playing their part in breaking down formal structures and allowing more informal questions and clarification, for example.

Companies are increasingly adopting ways of controlling email, boosting face to face exchanges, and putting policies in place to prevent over reliance and distraction.

Technology is a tool to be used effectively, but it’s something to be picked up and put down at the right time when it starts to get in the way, or drain productivity.

Business is about people and technology – but we need to understand when one gets in the way of the other; for our own benefit and the benefit of the businesses we run.

Rupert Cornford, head of business at Carter Corson; with additional insight from senior psychologist Clare Mulligan