Home >Opinion >The age of email stress

If its followers were a country, it would be twice as populous as China. These 2.5 billion people give an hour every day to their faith—email. As with all things Internet related, email gained adherents at a prodigious rate. The first email message was sent in 1971, but widespread use began only by 1995.

In 30 years, email went from being a revolutionary replacement for the postal department—what we now call snail mail—to being a replacement, sometimes, for speech.

“Now we know that emails are often exchanged between people sitting in the same building—or even in the same room!" says a new study called “You’ve Got Mail!" from the Future Work Centre, a UK research institute. After surveying 2,000 users in the UK—the findings are not likely to be particularly different elsewhere—they have some disquieting explanations as to what email is doing to its users.

The problem is the “bad habits" that email users develop: leaving email on all day (62%) and sending emails automatically to inboxes (50%), which is what most people I know do—oh, yes, myself included.

This unceasing deluge is sparked by a desire to be in control. You know, to avoid the shock when your phone tells you 50 emails are pending. To avoid such stressful situations, you check your email—in the morning and late at night—and believe you are staying ahead. But the Future Work Centre study showed that these habits instead cause more stress and make your life more difficult.

This is primarily about work. Of the 196.3 billion emails sent every day in 2014, 55% were work-related, according to a 2014 study from the Radicati group, a US technology market-research firm.

“Email remains the most pervasive form of communication in the business world, while other technologies such as social networking, instant messaging (IM), mobile IM, and others are also taking hold, email remains the most ubiquitous form of business communication," the Radicati study said.

However, consumer—or non-business—email traffic is slowing, presumably moving to social networking sites, instant messaging, mobile IM, and SMS/text messaging.

With its ubiquity in the lives of the globalized business elite, email has become different things for different people, acknowledges the UK study, pointing to other research that has thrown up conflicting results. So, email volume is a predictor of stress and, sometimes, it isn’t. Frequently checking your email can reduce stress, but it can also spark it. Filing your email in neat folders is linked to higher productivity—and lower efficiency.

What this adds up to is that the effects of email use on people is likely to vary.

“Our research shows that email is a double-edged sword," said Richard McKinnon, a Future of Work researcher, quoted on the website, while addressing the British Psychological Society this week. “Whilst it can be a valuable communication tool, it’s clear that it’s a source of stress, of frustration for many of us. The people who reported it being most useful to them also reported the highest levels of email pressure! But the habits we develop, the emotional reactions we have to messages and the unwritten organizational etiquette around email, combine into a toxic source of stress which could be negatively impacting our productivity and well-being."

Here are some of the stressors. Email has no clear norms with regard to language, familiarity and speed of response, and no “non-verbal" cues, such as body language, so the potential for misunderstandings, misinterpretations—and stress—abounds.

Unlike face-to-face communication or phone calls, email does not allow self-correction “in the moment", which means another email must be sent. The feeling of email overload, as some studies have noted, can result in physical stress and emotional exhaustion.

Finally, email can be a distraction, taking away time from other important activities, from eating to intimacy.

A sidelight that McKinnon and his team stumbled on during their research was that the feeling of being pressured by email was significantly higher among users of Mac operating systems, when compared to Windows; more among iOS (iPhone) users when compared to Android, Windows or BlackBerry.

Users of Windows smartphones reported the lowest levels of perceived email pressure. Why? “At this stage, we don’t know," said the study.

So, what can you do about email stress? The researchers recommend:

* To the early morning/late night checkers—put your phone away; do you really need to check your email?

* How about planning your day and prioritizing your work, before the priorities of others flood your inbox?

* Consider turning off ‘push notifications’ and/or turning off your email app for portions of the day, and take control of when you receive email.

There’s no harm trying. You have nothing to lose but your stress.

Samar Halarnkar is editor of, a data-driven, public-interest journalism, non-profit organization. He also writes the column Our Daily Bread in Mint Lounge.

Comments are welcome at To read Samar Halarnkar’s previous columns, go to

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