Signs that your culture is suffering from email overload
Email overload is the feeling of having a seemingly unmanageable amount of emails to send and respond to. Higher email load has been found to cause work stress, impacting both productivity and mental health.
Here are some signs that you and your teams might be suffering from email overload.
- Getting a lot of follow-up emails: Seeing too many “just wanted to check in on this” emails popping into your inbox
- Checking email constantly: In and outside of work hours, interrupting focused work, pings and buzzes triggering anxiety to respond and clear notification badges
- You’re losing emails: Overcrowding from unfiltered, unread, and to-do emails causing things to slip through the cracks
- You’re stressed at the start of every week: Feeling “the Sunday scaries” knowing you’ll have a pile of fresh emails to attack at the start of your work week
If this list resonated with you, it’s time for a change. But before we get into the solutions, let’s look at how the working world arrived in this mess in the first place and why it’s important that we put a stop to it.
Why email is a cultural norm in the first place
How did we get here? For many in the workplace right now, email has always been around, but it wasn’t always the beast it is today.
Before the turn of the century, communication revolved around phone calls, paper memos, faxes, or telegraphs. While this vastly lengthened the amount of time it would take to receive a response, workers had even more time to focus on getting their work done instead of spending hours of their day on communication.
Email in the workplace began as internal communications in select companies that had access to email software.
However, as more company websites were created and access to online web servers grew, so did consistent email communication. “Instant” communication at work (relative to the speed of communication before) was a new phenomenon that no one wanted to let go of.
While some of these tools can help ease email communication, others make unnecessary meetings and correspondence crop up even more, worsening the stress and overload instead of alleviating it.
Thankfully, there are ways to combat this.
The impact email overload has on team productivity and wellbeing
If employees are suffering from email overload, it’s a problem for the whole company. Spending too much time in your inbox can impact the business and its people in more ways than are immediately obvious.
The impact on productivity
The impact of email on productivity is well documented. This is largely down to the time it takes to manage the emails, but also because of context switching interruptions and recovery periods.
A Mckinsey analysis found that employees spend an average of 28% of their workweek managing emails. They also found that with better communication and collaboration through “social technologies”, companies would improve productivity by up to 30%.
They define social technologies as:
“IT products and services that enable the formation and operation of online communities, where participants have distributed access to content and distributed rights to create, add, and/or modify content.”
In other words, social media, forums, channels, and similar searchable content libraries.
We’ll talk about social technologies that can help improve productivity soon.
In addition to the time it takes to read and respond to emails, significant time is spent getting back into flow after being distracted by an email. In fact, a study found that it takes an average of 64 seconds to recover from responding to a single email.
When your company overuses or misuses email communication, it can impact your bottom line and take time away from the tasks that matter.
The impact on IQ
If you can remember as far back as 2005, you might recall headlines warning that emails and texts are making us dumber. This was based on a press release about a 2005 study by King’s College and sponsored by technology firm Hewlett-Packard (the hardware company we’ve come to know as HP) that found that a constant barrage of incoming emails can lower someone’s IQ by 10 points.
This drop in IQ equated to missing an entire night of sleep. All because of email overload.
What happened next? HP and the press coined the term “infomania”, and then the world carried on sending their emails, picking up pace year after year.
The impact on physical and mental health
In an empirical study, respondents were tested for a baseline and then wore monitors to track the effects that five working days without email would have. Without email, participants showed fewer effects of stress and anxiety and had a slower heart rate.
Poor mental health in the workplace can lead to poor physical health of your employees—with mental health having links to diabetes, hypertension, and heart conditions.
Workplace burnout can also have an effect on the business, leading to lower productivity, higher human error, and more.
How to prevent email overload
Email overload can’t be addressed by a few individuals or simply modeled from the top. It needs a company-wide solution in order to lower workplace stress and increase overall productivity.
With these strategies, your teams can start managing email overload across the board.
1. Start with company-wide processes
Fighting email overload starts with how your company views email as a tool. Email shouldn’t be the go-to for all comms in the workplace. It should be reserved for specific uses.
One way to make sure this happens is to make sure you’re using productivity tools to your advantage. Tools like Asana and Linear that help organize the work to be done in your organization can also help with communication.
For starters, they can eliminate follow-up emails and status updates (i.e. “how are we getting on with this”). When you iterate your workflows, everyone can see where everyone is at with a project.
At a higher level, you can create a better communication culture by setting some guidelines and boundaries. Ideas for this include:
- Set response time expectations, so people know what timeframe to expect a reply and add this to your company’s email signatures (e.g., We aim to respond to emails within 48 hours).
- Make sure people know it’s okay not to respond to every email to minimize back and forth messaging. Acknowledgment emails come into this category (e.g., emails simply stating “Ok”).
- Create guidelines on when to (and when not to) CC or BCC a co-worker. For example, see instead if you can forward the email thread once the conversation has wrapped up.
- Help your team understand what should and what shouldn’t be an email. For example, if a question is likely to turn into a conversation, perhaps it should be taken to another asynchronous (or “async”) form of communication, such as voice messaging.
- Have strict guidelines around “Reply All” so irrelevant contacts are not disturbed.
- Don’t expect your team to always be online. Email should be a form of asynchronous communication reserved for specific reasons.
By putting policies in place to improve email culture, you’re setting your team up for success and effective communication.
2. Archive, respond, or delegate
Let’s face it—inbox zero isn’t attainable for everyone. Striving for something that isn’t realistic is only going to bring you more stress.
Instead of reaching for something that won’t work for your email situation, find a strategy that will.
One way to do this is to use smart inboxing tools, such as Newton. Newton collates and tidies inboxes, helping you archive and delete those that aren’t worthy of your time while prioritizing those that are. You can set reminders to respond later, set emails as to-do tasks, and recap on unresolved conversations.
While most email tools allow you to filter your inbox, they’re often heavy on the setup time. And most people who are already suffering from email overload don’t have the time or energy for all of that. Newton does this automatically for you.
Preventing email overload starts with cleansing your systems and subscriptions. Unclog your inbox and unsubscribe from marketing emails you no longer care about. Put together a workflow that helps you feel better (e.g., if you open it, you take care of it).
3. Batch email activity at designated times
Many businesses have found success by designating times to address emails. Setting periods throughout the day can help your teams stay focused when they need to be and set expectations for correspondence.
For this to work with external contacts, you’ll need to include your email response policy somewhere public, such as within your terms or (once again) in your email signature.
How to batch email activity:
First, make sure your email notifications are turned off so you’re not distracted by new messages from outside contacts.
Second, block off certain times during your workday that will be fully dedicated to email management. Put it in your calendar and stick to it.
The best times for you, and each team member, will vary. The best use of your inbox time might be at the start of your day, the very end of your day, or—depending on how many incoming messages you tend to receive—two to three times during your day.
Third, set a test period. If batch emailing is new to you, try it for at least eight weeks to see if it’s a habit worth forming.
Attacking your emails in batches is a great way to make sure you don’t wind up with a backlog of important messages waiting for your attention. And it can help make sure you’re not stressing about new emails arriving in your inbox every few minutes.
Help employees understand that email is simply a part of everyone’s job and shouldn’t need to be squeezed in between other tasks. Build the mindset that email is a task all on its own.
As mentioned, set expectations about response times, so outside users from more frenetic email cultures understand your boundaries.
4. Set time for deep work
If setting times to check emails is a little too boxed-in for you, try setting time for your focused work instead.
Focused work, often called deep work, was popularized by author and Georgetown computer science professor Cal Newport in response to the barrage of interruptions we face every workday.
Newport believes that our email habit is an intentional distraction that gives us a false sense of productivity.
“Knowledge workers dedicate too much time to shallow work — tasks that almost anyone, with a minimum of training, could accomplish (email replies, logistical planning, tinkering with social media, and so on). This work is attractive because it’s easy, which makes us feel productive, and it’s rich in personal interaction, which we enjoy (there’s something oddly compelling in responding to a question, even if the topic is unimportant).
But this type of work is ultimately empty. We cannot find real satisfaction in efforts that are easily replicable, nor can we expect such efforts to be the foundation of a remarkable career.”
Newport argues that if we engage more in deep work, that is “cognitively demanding activities that leverage our training to generate rare and valuable results”, we’ll gain more job satisfaction along with productivity.
He’s since turned this concept into a bestselling book, a podcast, and several media appearances, so it’s safe to say people are interested.
Turn off notifications and don’t check work email during your deep work hours. Set clear boundaries so that you’re refreshed and ready to face that inbox when it’s the right time.
Making the shift to new methods of asynchronous communication
It’s true that email is a great form of asynchronous communication for some things. For example, an email is an ideal format for sending client contracts and receiving esignatures.
But all too often, emails lead to confusion and miscommunication. This is when you should look into a new kind of asynchronous communication tool.
The biggest challenge teams face when trying to fix email overload from the top is pinpointing the best direction to shift their communication.
Instant messaging apps often lead to the same issues as emails, with constant notifications distracting us from our work. Data shows that over 1.5 billion Slack messages are sent each week. So in some ways, instant messaging reduces inbox overload but doesn’t solve the problems of interruption and overwhelm.
Scheduling face-to-face meetings instead of emails is another popular (spoiler alert: misguided) detour from emails. We’ve written extensively on the topic of too many meetings and just how negatively it can impact your company’s bottom line.
In our opinion, using asynchronous voice communication is the best way to share clear communications with your team.
For some things (see the table below), email will always be best. For others, try something like asynchronous meetings to maximize everyone’s time.
Not totally sure when to send emails vs other forms of communication? We’ve got a list here to help your team outline your preferences.
Email overload is real. But it can be stopped.
If you’ve detected that your workplace is suffering from the impacts of overflowing inboxes, try reframing your culture around emails. Set expectations, cleanse your inboxes, and get more focused work done.
Start working with your teams on better communication strategies. Try out new communication methods like voice messaging with Yac. Book your free demo to see Yac in action today.