Recent years have seen a growing international movement promoting the concept of providing employees with a psychologically healthy workplace (PHW). PHW refers to the enhancement of workplace factors that foster employee mental health and wellbeing and therefore enhance organisational performance and productivity outcomes.
Under Australian occupational health and safety laws, employers are responsible for providing a safe workplace for their staff. More and more this is seen as more than just the traditional emphasis on physical safety, but on psychological safety as well. One of the main threats to psychological safety is the volume of email that employees are expected to handle on a daily basis and, increasingly, the workload that results from these new messages. Keeping up with all the new inputs we receive from a wide range of technological devices takes up a lot of our time each day. This occurs not only at work but also during our personal time; it seems we’re communicating ourselves into a frenzy. And it’s affecting our mental health in the ways explained below.
Stress is a key issue in the workplace, bearing several negative outcomes, with Information Overload being a significant contributor. An unexpected research finding comes from a survey of U.K. employees where temporary employees report better well–being, general health, more positive attitude towards work and better work behaviour (e.g. less absenteeism) than their permanent counterparts.
Researchers link this to the finding that many permanent workers reported high levels of work overload, relatively high levels of irritation, anxiety and depression and a strong interference of work with life at home.
Another study shows that 35% of knowledge workers experience back pain, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, eye strain, headaches and stress.
A large-scale survey of academic and administrative staff at an Australian university showed that staff who receive work email on their mobile devices report that, because colleagues know they are always accessible, this heightens the perceived pressure to respond quickly; staff consider it stressful to leave a message alone when the sender knows that it has been received.
David Meyer is professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. In 1995 his son was killed by a distracted driver who ran a red light. Meyer’s speciality was attention: how we focus on one thing rather than another. Attention comes naturally to us; attending to what matters is how we survive and define ourselves.
The opposite of attention is distraction, an unnatural condition and one that, as Meyer discovered in 1995, kills. Now he is convinced that chronic, long-term distraction is as dangerous as cigarette smoking.
In particular, there is the great myth of multitasking. No human being, he says, can effectively write an e-mail and speak on the telephone. Both activities use language and the language channel in the brain can’t cope. Multi-taskers fool themselves by rapidly switching attention and, as a result, their output deteriorates.
The same thing happens if you talk on a mobile phone while driving – even legally with a hands-free kit. You listen to language on the phone and lose the ability to take in the language of road signs. Worst of all is if your caller describes something visual, a wallpaper pattern, a picture. As you imagine this, your visual channel gets clogged and you start losing your sense of the road ahead. Distraction can kill either you or others (or both).
Chronic distraction, from which we all now suffer, kills you more slowly. Meyer says there is evidence that people in chronically distracted jobs are, in early middle age, appearing with the same symptoms of burn-out as air traffic controllers. They might have stress-related diseases, even irreversible brain damage. But the damage is not caused by overwork, it’s caused by multiple distracted work.
Attention Deficit Disorder
There’s a term for what we’re becoming due to this bombardment of information: “pseudo ADD.” This term was coined by two Harvard psychology professors who noticed that many people are experiencing a shortened attention span because of advances in communication.
Those affected do not have what is considered clinical Attention Deficit Disorder; they simply cannot focus on a task without compulsively checking their e-mail, voice mail and/or surfing the Internet.
In fact, a sustained negative neurological effect of information overload has been identified by psychiatrist E.M. Hallowell. He has called this effect Attention Deficit Trait, or ADT. ‘It isn’t an illness; it’s purely a response to the hyperkinetic environment in which we live….
When a manager is desperately trying to deal with more input than he possibly can, the brain and body get locked into a reverberating circuit while the brain’s frontal lobes lose their sophistication, as if vinegar were added to wine.
The result is black-and-white thinking; perspective and shades of grey disappear. People with ADT have difficulty staying organised, setting priorities, and managing time, and they feel a constant low level of panic and guilt. It seems that being connected all the time will lead us to a major ‘disconnect’!
It seems workers are literally addicted to checking email and text messages during meetings, in the evening and at weekends. The advent of highly mobile technology offers massive productivity benefits when used responsibly, but inappropriate use can be negative for not just productivity but also for our IQ.
The findings of a recent scientific experiment reveal that those who “over juggle” and who constantly disrupt meetings and important tasks to read and respond to messages, significantly reduce their IQ.
In a series of tests carried out by Dr Glenn Wilson, Reader in Personality at the Institute of Psychiatry, University of London, an average worker’s functioning IQ falls ten points when distracted by ringing telephones and incoming emails.
This drop in IQ is more than double the four point drop seen following studies on the impact of smoking marijuana. Similarly, research on sleep deprivation suggests that an IQ drop of ten points is equal to missing an entire night of sleep.
Constant pressure to respond
In many studies, staff at all levels have revealed a strong sense of pressure to respond to incoming email in a very short time frame. In fact, one study reported that 70 per cent of recipients responded to their email within six seconds, with 85 per cent responding within two minutes.
While prompt responses are sometimes part of explicit organisational policy, this pressure to respond quickly has developed as a norm and several studies report a tangible impact of this normative pressure to respond quickly can lead to strain, overload, compulsive checking and reactive decision-making.
One large scale survey of academic and administrative staff at an Australian university found that when response pressure is combined with high email volumes, this resulted in a greater experience of email overload and uncertainty with a detrimental impact to cognitive, decision-making and strain and this was linked with self-reported ‘emotional exhaustion’. Other studies report that workers are calling for explicit policy on response times, in order to feel both protected from these pressures.
In addition, a culture where email use had become highly embedded in one’s work (and therefore likely to consume major portions of people’s daily work activity), combined with norms for quick responding leads to these behaviours becoming automated/habitual and even compulsive, creating addictive tendencies for the individual.
In particular, the studies suggested that, addictive, automatic and habitual behaviours were more likely to emerge.
Lack of trust
It appears that trust in email use has a considerable impact on the strategies that people use and how people experience working life.
When there is a lack of trust within an organisation, a ‘covering your back’ email norm can emerge that is reflected in overuse of ‘cc’ and ‘bcc’ emails, presenteeism (being busy with email instead of undertaking productive work) and the suspicion that leads to keeping audit trails of email conversation threads chains.
A report by the Kingston Business School revealed another email management strategy that reportedly causes mistrust and alienation is when managers and colleagues attempt to delegate and manage their staff using email. This is often viewed negatively because of the lack of mutual agreement or negotiation involved, resulting in perceptions of autocracy and disregard.
When email is used to ‘cover your back’ in these ways, it arguably not only reflects but exacerbates the lack of trust. Because email is so convenient there is a danger that workers can end up ‘hiding behind’ email; using it to avoid sensitive or controversial conversations, or even to avoid personalised face-to-face contact. Hiding behind email in this way creates a lack of respect and regard for the initiator and can diminish trust.
When individuals feel overloaded by email a lack of capacity to deal with email effectively with all its demands, it has a negative impact on their self-esteem and confidence.
It appears then that if workers believe that they can deal with their email, and see it as central to their work, they are more likely to engage strategies to help them feel in control and less likely to perceive work email as problematic.
However, perceptions of email activity and the reality reported with objective measures do not always align and these perceptions of strain and overload are more important than any objective measurements because it is how one perceives threats to well-being that results in the actual experience of stress and strain.
For example, when asked to estimate how often they checked their email and compared this with objectively derived software monitoring figures, workers predicted they checked email around once every hour, when in fact it was more like once every five minutes. This demonstrates a misalignment of objective measures of physiological strain with well-being.
As a result of information overload in general, and email overload in particular, knowledge workers and managers worldwide are in a chronic state of mental overload.
This exacts a massive toll on employee productivity, causes significant personal harm, and compromises psychological safety in the workplace. Organizations ultimately pay the price with extensive financial loss.
The impact is so great that eliminating this problem should be a high priority, deserving serious and significant corrective measures. Solving this problem will have an immediate and positive impact on organisational results, while restoring email to its rightful role a powerful tool of personal and organisational effectiveness.