Should workers be limited to three email checks per day?

Study suggests restricting our time online could significantly reduce stress but is it really feasible in our constantly connected world?

Should workers be limited to three email checks per day?
- by Chloe Taylor

Most of us now have 24/7 access to our email accounts, with many people remaining constantly connected for fear of missing a work update but according to new research conducted by the University of British Columbia, limiting checking emails to three times a day could significantly reduce stress. 

Researchers behind the study have suggested that employers could instruct workers to check their emails in ‘chunks’, rather than responding to individual emails as they are received.

The study had 124 participants, some of whom were instructed to limit checking their emails to three times per day for a week. The remaining participants were told to check their email as often as possible – which was actually the same number of times that they usually checked their emails every day.

During the next week, the researchers reversed the instructions.

Throughout the study, stress was monitored via daily surveys, which questioned participants about their stress levels.

“Our findings showed that people felt less stressed when they checked their email less often,” said lead author Kostadin Kushlev.

However, he added that most of the participants struggled with the reduced amount of email checking.

“This is what makes our obvious-in-hindsight findings so striking,” Kushlev added. “People find it difficult to resist the temptation of checking email, and yet resisting this temptation reduces their stress.”

Kushlev was inspired to conduct the study by his own experiences over feeling overwhelmed by work emails.
“I now check my email in chunks several times a day, rather than constantly responding to messages as they come in,” he said. “I feel better and less stressed.”

But in today’s ‘always on’ world, is it possible to limit looking at our emails to just three checks per day?

Martin Nally, managing director at HR Anywhere, spoke to HRM Online about the study’s conclusions and the suggestions put forward by the researchers.

“This instruction would be impossible for the younger generation – they cannot take themselves away from their phones or devices,” Nally told HRM Online. “The stress of being away from their device would be greater than the stress imposed by checking their emails too often.”

He aligned the drive to be constantly connected with a fear of missing out, adding that it is important for employers to find a healthy balance between being productive and setting limits.

“You cannot have one rule fits all,” he said. “Any study that says we should do this is not taking into account the environments or processes that exist. If a main means of communications in a workplace is email then someone has to be checking this all the time.”

He praised emailing as an instantaneous and effective method of communication, saying that there is “nothing wrong” with people dealing with them while at work. However, he warned that workers often get overworked or distracted by them.

“When you get sucked into the vortex of emails you can lose hours as dealing with emails that aren’t relevant to your work,” he said. “Often people say that they feel as if they are drowning in emails – and if you’re drowning you either have to swim or get out.”

Nally added that if someone is being this heavily impacted by emails, they should remove themselves from the situation.

“It would be more realistic to stop checking emails three or four times a day rather than limit to just three times a day. I love the idea of telling employees to stop sending emails half an hour after working hours stop – that way we can still self-regulate without having feeling the need to respond to work until tomorrow.”

Nally also suggested following the example of one of his clients, a large retailer in Melbourne who banned employees from using the ‘BCC’ and ‘CC’ (blind carbon copy and carbon copy) options when emailing.

“Protocols like this assist companies in reducing the flow of emails being sent and received,” Nally told HRM Online.

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