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Taking E-Mail Vacations Can Reduce Stress, Study Says

Sunday 6 May 2012

By NICK BILTON | May 4, 2012, 6:00 am

You probably don’t need a doctor or scientist to tell you this, but your e-mail could be killing you.

A new study released Thursday by the University of California, Irvine, which was co-written with United States Army researchers, found that people who do not look at e-mail on a regular basis at work are less stressed and more productive.

The study, “A Pace Not Dictated by Electrons: An Empirical Study of Work Without Email,” looked at 13 workers in a typical office setting and asked them to discontinue e-mail for five days. The results were that during the e-mail hiatus, these people spent longer periods of time focusing on a single task at work and shifted between computer windows much less than those who were slaves to their in-box.

The researchers also tested people’s stress levels by attaching wearable heart rate monitors and found that their stress levels were much lower when not checking e-mail on a regular basis.

“The fact that we found that people are less stressed when they don’t have e-mail shows that there are ways to change the way we use e-mail in the work setting,” explained Gloria Mark, an informatics professor who has been studying the effects of e-mail in the workplace since 2004. “We suggest doing what we call batching e-mails, where organizations send e-mails once or twice a day, rather than continually, so employees know not to check their e-mail every 10 minutes.”

Ms. Mark also suggests taking “e-mail vacations” where people take a few days away from their in-box.

“We were able to get second-by-second stress levels from our tests and we found that over the five-day period away from e-mail, people’s stress levels went down compared with when they were using e-mails,” Ms. Mark said.

The study, which was financed by the Army and the National Science Foundation, also found that people who use e-mail on a regular basis “switched windows an average of 37 times per hour. Those without changed screens half as often – about 18 times in an hour.”

But there was a downside to completely walking away from e-mail. Participants reported that they felt “isolated” without access to e-mail for long periods of time. But the study participants quickly found a solution: they asked colleagues who still had access to e-mail about important work events.

Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company

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