Stop checking your email – it stresses you out

Checking email regularly increases workplace stress

Full inbox - email overloadHow many times a day do you check your email? More than 44% of people check their email at least 11 times a day, according to one poll. Another survey shows that we use our mobiles to check email more often than any other device and that we access our mobiles an average of 221 times a day. Seven years ago I wrote a blog post about a study showing that some people checked their email system 40 times an hour…!

One of the reasons we do this is reward. Getting an email, seeing another message, triggers our mental reward system. That helps us feel good about ourselves. When our reserves are low, we head over to our email inbox and check to see if there is a message awaiting. A new, unread message, triggers that reward system and that improves our mood and self-evaluative systems. When you had only physical post, you only got one “fix” a day. Now you can get as many of those reward fixes as possible and hence people are constantly going back and forth to their email, “just in case”.

Email is actually a productivity reduction system. Far from improving our productivity, it is reducing our ability to work well. It is not the miracle of communication we sometimes think. I even suggested that email caused the recession. Every time you check your email, your brain has “attention shift”. Each time you shift attention from the task in hand it takes about 15 minutes to get back on track with what you were doing. Writing a report that should take you an hour, could take you two hours if you check email four times an hour – which is common for some people.

Now, a straightforward study of email usage shows – once again – that checking email regularly increases stress. Far from easing worries, checking email more than three times a day, is a stress inducer says the study from Canada.

The reward system of our brain lulls us into a false sense of security. By giving us a mental pat on the back it makes us feel as though checking email is good for us. We even logically prove it to ourselves by suggesting that email has solved a communications problem.

However, our stress hormones are getting increased the more times we check our email. That’s because as we seek more and more rewards, our body starts to think we are in danger if we do not get our rewards. And it starts pumping out those hormones in response.

The answer is simple. Check your email once in the morning, once at lunchtime and once in the evening. Then forget it. You will become more productive and less stressed.

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