HR Employee Conduct

At the Mercy of your Inbox? Email Overload and Stress in the Workplace

In Employee Grievances,

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Take a look at your work email inbox. Beyond the chit-chat with colleagues, spam, and discounts on spa weekends from Groupon.ie, the majority of work-related messages probably contain questions, queries, and requests for clarification. How many of these messages lie unread, and for how long? If the bold number next to the word ‘inbox’ is a high one, chances are you work in a busy and potentially stressful office. Emails arrive and are replied to, which in turn are responded to with further queries. Then another department is cc’ed, there’s more back and forth, and finally, it ends up forwarded elsewhere for a fresh round of clarification. Repeat ad-infinitum. Sound familiar?

Of course, a considered and thoughtful response to these messages is the optimum course of action. This is especially true in HR or customer facing roles – if you are in the business of dealing with people, weighing up all possible outcomes and responding in a polite and timely manner is best for business. Sometimes though the constant pinging and on-screen notifications that signify the arrival of new mail can feel overwhelming.

“The reason it can feel overwhelming to find lots of emails in your work inbox,” Psychologist and author Ron Friedmann told Business Insider, “is that each message represents another demand on your time and another decision you have to make. Even deciphering a generic announcement about the office coffee maker requires effort, which leaves less energy for work that matters.”

The rise of the smartphone and the expectation to stay connected at all times exacerbates this problem. In a 2015 survey, almost 3 quarters of workers polled said they check work emails at weekends, and just under half have been known to check emails after 11 pm. A work/life balance swinging too much in favour of work can lead to stress, exhaustion and increased absenteeism for your company. What if it all gets too much?

In the summer of 2018, a Business Development Executive at a subsidiary of meat giants Kepak was awarded €7,500 by the Labour Court because she was expected to deal with out-of-hours work emails.  The executive felt she had to check her emails after midnight and before 8 am and the extra hours led to her working more than 48 hours per week.  The Company was ordered to pay the former business development executive €7,500 over repeated breaches of Section 15 of The Organisation of Working Time Act, 1997.

Although the Business Development Executive was contracted to work a 40-hour week, she, in fact, was deemed to have worked a 60 hour week, dealing with work emails after midnight and before 8 am.  The Company was criticised for its failure to monitor and curtail her working pattern as well as for its failure to keep proper records of her working hours.

Under the Organisation of Working Time Act, 1997 employees are entitled to an uninterrupted 11-hour break between finishing work and starting work the following day and employers leave themselves exposed to this type of claim in circumstances where they allow employees to be interrupted by work during their free time.

There are myriad ways to try and manage the digital deluge. For some, picking up the phone to talk is still the most direct and proactive approach to prevent long email chains full of superfluous information. Nowadays, however, many companies are doing away with external phone support altogether, with tech companies leading the charge, citing cost efficiency and increased productivity. The downside to this is an ever-increasing unread count in your employees’ inbox.

Some companies recognise that ‘always-on’ culture increases stress, and are fighting back with novel approaches. If an employee from German firm Daimler goes on holiday, their incoming emails are simply deleted, while Ireland’s own Core media have a 12-hour moratorium on employees sending emails after 7.30pm. Individuals can also take matters into their own hands, with plenty of Productivity apps to help plan your time better (Rescuetime, WayofLife) or actually block access to your email for designated periods (Stayfocusd, SelfControl)

But what of emails that require action? Sadly, no apps can reply to complex queries for you (yet!). Perhaps Merlin Mann’s famous concept of ‘Inbox Zero’ could help – categorize each message as delete, delegate, respond, defer or do to get your unread count down to the magic number. Using folders, tags and automatic filters within your email client can also help sort through what is important. Prioritizing your time efficiently is key – would it be better to work on the email that needs a large report analysed first, or fire off solutions to 5 smaller queries in that time? Business owners could also consider outsourcing departments; bringing aboard external experts to help scale and optimize their company.

Email has long been the stalwart of business communication, but changes in approach may be worth considering. Semi-automated live chat support for customers via a company website is increasing in popularity, as are instant messaging services such as Skype for Business for use in inter-company discussions. WhatsApp is now the go-to messaging app for a workforce increasingly mobile, and the company is pursuing expanding their enterprise platform for business use.

Stress can be a serious workplace issue.  If the ubiquitous access afforded by the mobility of wireless devices allows work to invade times and places that were previously safe from the workplace’s intrusion your workforce may have a problem.

Call Insight HR today on 056 770 1060, or you can email mcullen@insighthr.ie for more information – we promise you a prompt and thorough reply!

 

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