Email could be the latest workplace hazard facing us according to a recent study by University of California-Irvine and U.S. Army researchers. Not checking your email constantly at work lowered stress in the study’s participants and also led to them being more productive.
Heart rate monitors were attached to each of the 13 Army workers in a “suburban office center” who participated and software sensors were used to track how often they switched screens on their computers. Those who agreed to give up email for five whole days were found to only switch screens an average of 18 times, while those who went about their work like many of us (i.e., screen-hopping on a very regular basis) were found to switch screens an average of 37 times.
The researchers found that, as the New York Times puts it, not being a “slave” to your inbox meant people were able to focus more on single tasks and had “natural, variable heart rates,” in contrast to the “high alert” state with “constant heart rates” of those who kept up the screen-shifting and email-checking.
UCI informatics professor Gloria Mark co-authored the study, “A Pace Not Dictated by Electrons,” with UCI assistant project scientist Stephen Voida and Army senior research scientist Armand Cardello. Mark says that the findings could benefit productivity and suggest how “controlling email login times, batching messages or other strategies” could be useful.
As Megan Garber points out in The Atlantic, the study’s sample size is small (only 13 participants), and the researchers indeed ”had trouble recruiting subjects who were willing and able to give up email for five days.” Those who gave up email reported feeling isolated; they were able to “garner critical information from colleagues who did have email” — that is, they actually had to find another worker and speak to them rather than just “shooting someone an email.” Workers who had to get up from their desks to seek out a colleague also got in a bit of exercise rather than sitting in their ergonomic offices chairs all day.
Despite the feelings of isolation, Mark says that “participants loved being without email, especially if their manager said it was OK. In general, they were much happier to interact in person.”
In one sense, the study’s results simply confirm something many of us experience. Who doesn’t feel the constant need to check your inbox soon as you’re alerted to a new message? Unplugging and taking an “email vacation” are routinely cited as essential components of any “real” vacation. The study does offer a reminder that, even as today’s technology keeps us connected, being constantly connected and “on” can be too much of a good thing.
Would you give up your work email for five days?
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Photo by Gideon Tsang