Are your emails making you sick?
There have been massive advances in new technology in the recent past, which have affected our lives both at home and at work. Probably the greatest advances have been in relation to communication and, in particular, emails. The use of modern smartphones and tablets makes employees available 24 hours a day almost anywhere in the world. Internet speeds are getting faster and many workers can receive a mountain of information very quickly. The growth in social media also extends to work, and many organisations use such media as a means of promotion and communication.
With this ease of communication comes a perception that employees are always available and some may feel a pressure to respond quickly to incoming emails.
Recent research has shown that dealing with emails can cause stress, and measurable physiological and psychological effects can be experienced. So how can email stress be managed? What are the legal implications and how does this issue affect both employers and employees?
In 2002, researchers at Loughborough University evaluated the effect of email interruptions within the workplace. They found that 70% of emails dealt with were viewed wi
thin six seconds, and there was an interrupt recovery time of 64 seconds. This means it takes 64 seconds to get back into the work that was being carried out before the email interruption.
The findings highlight (in a worst case scenario) that if it takes on average 1½ minutes to read and recover from an email, and the employee is interrupted every 5 minutes, then an employee could have up to 96 interruptions in a normal 8-hour working day.
Other researchers have suggested that emails give rise to side-effects, such as increased psychological burden and distress that directly affects the wellbeing of the employee.
More recently, researchers at Loughborough University led by Professor Tom Jackson explored the physiological and psychological impact of email on employees at a UK government agency, using blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol levels and paper-based diaries. The findings showed a link between email and stress and indicated that employees were more prone to increased stress during information gathering (reading) and sharing (sending) activities, and less susceptible during information management and retrieval activities (finding and filing email messages). The results also showed that four employees showed physical signs of elevated stress ― therefore increased blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol secretion ― during email use. Six participants showed sharp increases in blood pressure and seven exhibited an increased heart rate on return to email use after “email free time”.
More specifically than other studies, the results showed the most commonly reported email tasks were reading and sending emails and 18 participants showed an increase in blood pressure and heart rate when undertaking these tasks, as opposed to finding and filing email messages.
The law on work-related stress is well known and there is no reason why it should not apply to the stress emanating from dealing with emails.
The Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974 requires employers to ensure the health, safety and welfare of all employees while they are at work and this implicitly includes consideration of stress-related to emails and other new technology issues. The qualifying words of the Act “so far as is reasonably practicable” mean that employer’s action must be proportionate to the risk. The Health and Safety Executive’s stress management standards advise on how the issue of stress should be approached.
The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require employers to perform risk assessments for work activities and again this should include email stress.
The Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 set a standard for display equipment and while the standard is difficult to apply to certain equipment, such as mobile phones and tablets, the Regulations see stress as a major issue and deal with it by way of requirements stipulating rest breaks, training and the design of the workstation.
The common law on stress has been well explored through case law in the recent past. In summary, employers have a duty to take reasonable care of employees, which will include stress from emails.
Liability for psychiatric injury caused by stress at work including emails is in general no different in principle from liability for physical injury. The test is whether there was a foreseeable risk of injury stemming from the employer’s breach of duty of care and whether this can be linked to email use.
All employers need to examine the range and scope of their employees’ exposure to email and incorporate the findings into risk assessments and policies relating to electronic communication and the use of display screen equipment. They should also consider the possible exposure of staff to emails out of normal working hours.
The steps employers could take to reduce the stress from email may include:
- Training for staff on how to better manage their communication data
- Reducing and controlling the number of emails received and sent by avoiding unnecessary and superfluous emails.
- Controlling spam by training staff on the use of filter settings on their electronic devices.
- Controlling use of aggressive and inflammatory emails.
- Better diary control.
- Realistic timescales for email response and other actions.
- Limiting the time spent on checking emails.
- Controlling the use of portable devices such as mobile phones and tablets.
- Controlling and limiting the amount of “private” time spent on checking emails.
What employees can do
The following checklist may help employees manage stress from emails.
- Turn off devices for short periods of time each day. This may cause some anxiety but the benefits may be worthwhile.
- Attempt to set some limits: devise a “not-to-do list” (e.g. do not check emails before 10 am).
- Accept the fact you cannot respond to 500 emails a day. No one is superhuman.
- Learn moderation. Make a note of how many times a day emails are checked or how many times social networking sites are scanned. Realise when you have a problem, and make a practice of not being a slave to your devices.
- Try to separate home life from work life during working hours (and vice versa).
Controlling email stress could be beneficial to any organisation. It could:
- Lead to more efficient and effective email communication.
- Lead to less lost time due to ill health.
- Reduce the possibility of civil claims.
Stress can lead to long-term chronic health conditions such as hypertension, thyroid disease, heart failure and coronary artery disease, so it is important that it is addressed.
We are living in a time of rapid change and there are likely to be more advances in email communication. It is down to employers and employees to make sure the stress that may come with it is properly managed.