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.