Should conscientious academics ignore their email?

However you handle them, emails are a source of stress. But there are ways to minimise it, says Emma Russell

October 5, 2017

You have just sat down to mark that pile of student essays that have been glaring at you for the past two days, when – ping! – in comes an email message with a suitably distracting request. Of course you can resubmit your expenses claim from last month on a different form – those essays are just going to have to wait a little longer.

That is unless you are one of the more diligent, achievement-focused among us. In a study that I have just published with colleagues from the University of Surrey in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, we found that such conscientious people are better disposed to resist the lure of the email interruption – especially under stress – and stick to their main task, in pursuit of maximum efficiency. However, we also found that ignoring emails lowers conscientious workers’ well-being, probably as a result of the stress caused by knowing that there are messages awaiting their attention.

Whether academics are more likely to be conscientious is not something I would like to speculate on. But a systematic literature review on email strategies that I have recently carried out for Acas, the UK government-funded workplace experts, found that email-ignoring strategies are widely used by academics – who often switch off interrupting alerts completely. Yet there was also a marked generational gap in strategies. In the sense-checking interviews I subsequently conducted with a sample of participants, it was notable that junior academics were more likely than senior colleagues to use email as an embedded part of their work – keeping on top of appointments and student requests, and aiming to respond to colleagues within a shorter time frame. Even when more senior academics did check their email messages, they would not necessarily deal with them; one head of department reported that he had more than 1,000 unread emails in his inbox and that he was so stressed by the workload they represented that he could not face them. One of my own colleagues has resorted to deleting swathes of emails without even opening them.

My research for Acas revealed that there is no one-size-fits-all set of strategies to improve productivity and well-being at work, whether we are conscientious or not. Nevertheless, some useful tips do suggest themselves.

One is to attempt to process and clear email whenever you check it – file it, flag it, delete it. By reducing inbox clutter, people report feeling less overloaded. Another is to manage expectations. For instance, if you are responding to email when your “out of office” is switched on, people will learn that they can contact you even when you are meant to be uncontactable. Let your senders know when they can expect to hear back from you. This can be done with the automatic reply function. One example from a colleague reads: “If you are a student, please make an appointment to see me using my Doodle poll. Colleagues, I will endeavour to reply to you within five working days. If I do not reply please resend the email marking it as SECOND ATTEMPT in the subject line”.

It is also worth reviewing your current email strategy. Dealing with messages as soon as you are notified of them, for instance, may save you from thinking too hard about your responses, but may ultimately be counterproductive if it engages you in an email ping-pong that serves only to prolong or escalate the issue.

And, lastly, think of others. If you are catching up with your email outside working hours then use the “delay send” function so that your messages are only received during normal working hours. This means that while you are taking advantage of the flexibility of email, you aren’t imposing this on the recipient, who may not want to be disturbed.

Implementing just some of these suggestions can significantly improve our management of email, and help us to feel more in control. Which means that the next time we face that stack of essays, we will know to – ping!

Er, sorry, where was I?

Emma Russell is a senior lecturer in occupational psychology at Kingston University.


Print headline: Compulsion to correspond  

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Reader's comments (2)

Ever noticed that in a lot of American films and television shows each home has a mailbox at the edge of the property and residents go there to find out what's arrived since they last looked? That is a much better procedure than having mail pushed through your front door whenever the deliverer decides to deliver it, because YOU find out what's arrived only when YOU want to know about it. (People in flats in Britain generally have the American arrangement of a mailbox away from their front door.) The same applies to email. There is no reason to have email messages arrive in real time. You can set your software to only pick them up when you want to see what's arrived. That way, you never get distracted by an incoming email when you are in the midst of something else. The advice above to "use the 'delay send' function so that your messages are only received during normal working hours" is well intentioned but mistaken. It's not for you to decide when your recipient should receive your email: that's for her to decide. For all you know, she may be unexpectedly stuck somewhere outside of office hours and actively want to pick up and deal with her email to fill this otherwise wasted time rather than waiting to do it the next day during office hours. In the golden age a few years ago--when we all used the POP rather than IMAP protocol for email--all email worked like this and everyone was happier. Then along came IMAP and with it the idea of the sender 'pushing' the email to the recipient rather than the recipient 'pulling' the email to themselves, and everyone started to get stressed about email. (IMAP doesn't have to do 'push' rather than 'pull', but that is how almost every university and company sets it up.) The solution is simple: find out how to set your email client to 'pull' in your incoming emails only when you want to read them. You need never be distracted again by that annoying 'ping'. Gabriel Egan Centre for Textual Studies De Montfort University
Interesting response- thanks, Gabriel.