Many of us never take a break
from work emails for long, even during what’s supposed to be downtime. In a 2011
Harris Interactive poll of about 3,300 U.S. adults, more than a third
admitted to checking work emails while on vacation.
Yet maybe more of us should take an email holiday, based on a
at a May 2012 meeting of the Association for Computing Machinery. For the
study, researchers from the University of California, Irvine, and U.S. Army
teamed up to ask a radical question: What happens when you shut off employee
email for a week?
The study included 13
professionals and managers for whom information was an indispensable tool of
their trade. For five workdays, these volunteers agreed to do without email.
During that period, as well as during a baseline period beforehand, they wore
heart rate monitors to track their physiological state. Meanwhile, special
software recorded how often they switched from one computer window to another.
When using email, the
volunteers switched windows an average of 37 times per hour. Without email,
that rate was cut in half—an indication of more sustained attention.
But the heart rate monitors
told the most compelling story: On email days, heart rates stayed at a more
constant rate. This absence of normal variability in heart rate occurs when the
body is in a steady state of high alert due to stress. In contrast, on email-free days, volunteers
showed more normal, variable heart rates. In short, they were less stressed.
When researchers talked with the
volunteers afterward, their comments backed up these findings. Almost all
described the email-free pace as more relaxed, using adjectives such as “liberated”
and “refreshing.” They also said that they spent more time interacting with
other human beings, either face-to-face or on the phone. The biggest downside they
reported was a fear of being out of the loop.
In a separate study,
researchers from Stanford and Boston University found that the more time people
spent handling email, the more burdened they felt. In fact, email seemed to be
singled out as the ultimate
symbol of work overload, maybe because the bottomless inbox was a constant,
nagging reminder of never-ending job demands.
Smartphones may just be
exacerbating the problem. Research suggests that it’s
particularly easy to become compulsive about
checking email that way. And because most people carry their phones with
them 24/7, the constant checking cuts not only into work hours, but
also into playtime.
Given the mostly positive results of
the week-without-email study, maybe more of us should try shutting off message
alerts and carving out some email-free workdays—or, at the very least, taking