Today’s knowledge workers are at a crisis point. All of their communication is happening at rapid speed, but they’re still expected to do their best creative work that requires deep focus. Imagine trying to read a book at the same time as you’re trying to write one!
That’s the situation that employees find themselves in regardless if they work from home or if they’re back in the office. Experts originally said that technology in the workplace would give us more time off, but all it’s actually done is caused us to work even more.
Email, especially, is a huge cause of stress for many people, with email overload becoming increasingly common. It’s no surprise considering that the average professional is estimated to spend around 28% of every workday checking email, opening their inboxes an average of every 37 minutes. Nobody is really expecting a response in under an hour, so why are we doing this?
What’s more, this email overload is creeping into our personal lives, with one study finding that almost 40% of respondents had dealt with work emails from home (and this was before people were teleworking!).
This level of email overload is unsustainable and will ultimately harm individual employees, teams, and the company as a whole. So, let’s take a look at how to spot email overload at your business and, more importantly, how to manage, cope with and reduce it!
How Can You Recognize Email Overload?
You have a lot of emails, sure, but is your company genuinely suffering from email overload? It’s time to find out. Email overload is the feeling that you have an unmanageable number of messages. The feeling that however many emails you send or respond to, there is still an endless list to go.
Some sure-fire signs that your office is suffering email overload are:
A feeling of dread ahead of opening your inbox at the start of the workday or even work week.
An insatiable urge to check your inbox: We said earlier that professionals check their messages more than once an hour – how frequently are you opening your inbox?
The homelife creep: Ok, so this one might sound worse than it is, but if you find yourself checking emails at home because you’re stressed they’re piling up at work, you may be suffering email overload.
Lost letters and missed messages: Are emails falling through the cracks? Do you open an email to reply but then it gets lost in the mix? If yes, you probably have too many emails.
Hounded by follow-ups: Do you find yourself with numerous follow-up emails every day from colleagues or clients because you just can’t keep up? You guessed it: Email Overload!
Is deeper focus work or actual projects on the back burner so you can just deal with communication?
If any (or more likely all) of these signs are familiar to you or your business, then it’s a pretty sure bet that you’re suffering from email overload. But before we explore how to tackle it, let’s take a look at why you should treat it as a severe problem.
How Can Email Overload Negatively Impact You and Your Company?
It can be easy to brush off email overload as “just part of the business”, but it actually has a detrimental impact on both individuals and companies as a whole.
The Cost to the Individual
A business is nothing without its employees, and email overload can affect the physical and mental well-being of those who have to deal with it. Researchers from the University of California looked at the correlation between email and stress by hooking up forty office workers to heart-rate monitors for about 12 days.
They looked at the workers’ heart-rate variability, which is used as a measure of mental stress. Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that the longer a person spends on emails in an hour, the greater that person’s stress level is for the hour.
What’s more, this impact isn’t only in the short term. A study in Sweden looked at five thousand workers to gauge the long-term impact of exposure to “high information and communication technology demands” (i.e., email overload) and found that it led to “suboptimal” health outcomes.
This remained true regardless of factors such as health behaviors, body mass index, and job strain. This means that you can eat healthily, exercise regularly, and minimize stress in other areas of your work and still suffer health problems by being exposed to modern tech communication demands.
The stress that this email overload creates can have a profound impact on our health. In the short term, it can cause symptoms such as:
Aches and pains across your body
Tiredness while simultaneously having trouble sleeping
Headaches, dizziness, and shaking
Muscle tension and jaw clenching (which in turn can lead to aches and pains)
A weakened immune system
Over the longer term, stress can lead to severe problems such as depression, panic attacks, anxiety, and a general feeling of sadness, which can spiral into other issues. If left unchecked, stress can ruin both our physical and mental health, with the high pressure of work eventually leading to us not working at all.
The Cost to the Company
In addition to the impacts of email overload on the individual, it also impacts the company as a whole.
First, if employees are spending more than a quarter of their workweek trying to stay on top of their emails, this means less actual work being done. It equates to a full day being wasted in inboxes every week, and cutting email overload could give your company this day back (or lead to a four-day week!).
All employees require periods to focus on deep work, and emails are a massive impediment to this. They break focus and demand attention. While quickly checking emails may seem like a 5-minute task, it can actually have a far more significant impact.
It has been found that once a task is interrupted (for example, by an email), it can take a person more than 23 minutes to get back on track. That’s almost half an hour of wasted time for every instance you open your inbox!
Furthermore, the link between individual email overload and company productivity can’t be ignored. If a particular employee is suffering the effects of stress from email overload, it will negatively impact the company. Stress leads to illness, and an increase of just 1% in the rate of sickness absenteeism can lead to a productivity loss of 0.24%.
A person’s well-being is more important, but tackling stress related to email overload leads to healthier people and more productive business.
Techniques to Manage Email Overload
We’ve looked at how to recognize email overload in yourself and your company, as well as the devastating effects it can have on an organization and an individual. Now it’s time to examine some of the solutions to reduce email overload.
When looking to reduce email overload, developing your plan of action will help you to be more productive at work, less stressed, and further your career. Managing email overload at work is a hard problem to deal with, but people can build up the tools and skills to view email as a productivity tool instead of a productivity drain.
Develop an Automated System
One of the challenges today is that we don’t control who can email us, so we need server-side tools that can help streamline an inbox. One such example is Spike’s Priority Inbox. Not all email messages are of the same importance, and they shouldn’t be treated as such by your email solution. Priority Inbox prioritizes your most important emails so they sit front and center while placing less importance on things like social media notifications, shopping receipts, etc. – and puts them into an “Other Inbox.”
If you don’t use Spike, look into other automated solutions that can help reduce the number of notifications and alerts you see from your email. Many email providers offer to filter emails based on sending, subject line, etc. One idea might be to tag any email that has Amazon in the subject with the tag receipt and then automatically archive it from the Inbox. If you get a daily newsletter from one of your favorite websites but don’t always have time to read it, apply the tag to read and then archive it. When you have time to read it, go to that folder.
After you build automations into your system, you need to decide how you want to use your Inbox. Some people use their Inbox as a “dumping ground” for things they’ve not yet dealt with. When emails arrive that you know will need a little more time to deal with, see if your email system has a star/pin functionality so you can keep it at the top of your inbox. If your email is something that you can’t work on until later, see if your email system has a Snooze functionality that will let you hide the email for some time, but then bring it right back at a time of your choice.
Each email system will be different, but the key is to look for ways to clean up your inbox either through automation or a manual system you build. For even more tips, check out our email hacks for people who love to save time.
Look to Outgoing Automation
Automation can also apply to outgoing emails, to a lesser extent. What we’re talking about here are templates! Trying to figure out what to write in an email can lead to email anxiety, which leads to delays, emails piling up, and eventually, an overload.
This can be tackled by using templates for messages you find yourself sending on a regular basis. For example, if you always type out the same response to customer inquiries, stop writing it and overloading your inbox – use a template! With Spike Message Templates, you don’t have to break your flow and can easily add them to any email with keyboard shortcuts.
Stop Checking Emails 24/7
If you’re above the age of 35, you probably remember someone in your house was getting up from the dinner table to answer the phone. Many dads would say this phrase: “The phone is for our convenience, not for everyone else”. Your email should be treated the same way. Email is a modern miracle, but don’t let it run your life. Email is a tool to be used. Unless you’re in a role where you are monitoring an inbox for communications from people, it’s not advisable to leave your email app open all of the time. When you need to focus on a project, close your email app and pretend it doesn’t exist.
You can also create email windows during your day where you check your inbox first thing in the morning, right after lunch, and then in the final hour of your workday. These windows will let you have a focused time to address any outstanding issues but will let you spend the majority of your workday in profound and creative thinking.
Stop Emailing so Much
It might sound counterintuitive to say stop sending so many emails to manage email overload properly. However, if you are dealing with email overload, it’s likely your coworkers are as well. Can you find your answer on a company wiki? Find it there using a search tool. Has someone sent you the answer before? Use your search functionality in your email system to find it instead of bothering someone else because you don’t want to take the time to look for it. Reducing email overload at work will take work on everyone’s part, so if you can stop sending even a fraction of the ones you send now, you’ll be making small steps towards reducing the number of emails each person on your team receives.
One of the most practical ways to actually implement this at your company is to create an email guide. This should include:
Guidelines to when you do and don’t have to respond to an email. E.g. an email just saying “thanks!” increases email overload unnecessarily – don’t send it!
Rules about using the Reply All function – does your question really need to go to everyone in a thread?
Rules on when people should use CC’s and BCC’s, and more importantly, when they shouldn’t!
Guidelines on when to use email and when to use other forms of communication (we’ll get to that later).
Anything else you think might help your team cut down on their email overload.
Batch Your Work for Greater Productivity
Another way to reduce email overload is to batch your work or create time blocks. As mentioned earlier, checking emails can eat into your time and distract you from other tasks, which is down to something called context switching. Batching tasks can help reduce its impact.
For example, you can create email windows during your day such as you checking your inbox first thing in the morning, right after lunch, and then in the final hour of your workday. These windows will let you have a focused time to address any outstanding issues but will let you spend the majority of your workday in profound and creative thinking.
A common way to block time is using the Maker’s Schedule and Manager’s Schedule, as explained by Paul Graham. This system divides scheduling into two distinct types:
The Manager’s Schedule – Each day is chopped up into hour-long chunks, which are then filled with various tasks (such as checking email or taking meetings).
The Maker’s Schedule – A person’s time is divided into chunks of at least half a day to allow for deep-focus work (such as writing code, not checking email).
These days, most roles require a mix of the two, but the key is keeping them separated, so your managing tasks like email don’t leech into your maker’s tasks like writing reports, writing code, or crafting a presentation.
For example, you could have half a day of manager schedule, in which you check emails and take meetings. Then, after lunch, you have a full half-day of maker schedule where you don’t check your emails at all! Better yet, you could extend this to be an entire day.
Try a No Email Day
It may seem like a radical idea, but experts from the National Forum for Health and Wellbeing at Work have suggested that businesses could try taking one day a month where there are no emails at all! Their suggestion is a No Email Friday, whereby employees arrange face-to-face, video, or phone calls instead.
Sometimes, this might not be practical for an entire company – a customer service department will need to deal with tickets on a rolling basis. However, that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be done with single departments on certain days – for example, your marketing department might try No Email Fridays once a month and use that time to brainstorm new creative strategies, completely uninterrupted.
There is almost always a need for cross-department communication, but this is where tools such as Schedule Send from Spike are essential. This feature allows people outside of an email-free department to schedule messages for another day, so it abides by everyone’s schedule.
Set Expectations on Response Times
Our final tip on managing email overload at work is to set clear expectations on when responses should be expected. There is a big window between wanting a response right away vs. getting one a week later. At your company, set the expectation that all emails will be responded to within 24 hours even if it’s just an acknowledgment that the email was received. If the email requires more work on your part before you can give them what they’re asking for, then let them know why you’ll be delayed and when they can expect it.
Setting the expectations on response times will free people up from thinking they have to monitor their inbox 24/7. Expectations on response times are especially important when dealing with multiple time zones. If someone in the PST time zone in the US sends someone an email towards the end of the day EST time, the person on EST time shouldn’t feel the need to stay late to respond to emails from the PST people. In the same respect, PST people shouldn’t feel the pressure to wake up early to check their inbox for messages from EST people. Set a company policy for response times to take the pressure off everyone to be monitoring their inbox instead of working.
This is especially true of checking work emails from home. Not only does it set a bad precedent, but it can detract from all the stress-busting techniques you’ve implemented at the office. Research shows that checking emails from homes actively inhibits our ability to recover from work stresses, so switch off and sign out!
Explore Other Communication Tools
While it may sometimes feel like the only avenue of business communication is email, this isn’t true! There are plenty of other methods to stay in touch with your team and get work done, and all of them have their place in your workflow.
It is all too easy to default to email, especially as more offices move towards asynchronous communication. Asynchronous communication is basically communication that isn’t “live” and doesn’t require an immediate response. A phone call or video call is, for example, synchronous communication. Email, on the other hand, is asynchronous, but it is not the only one!
Voice Messages are a great new tool for businesses since they offer many of the benefits of a call, such as explaining complex ideas but in an asynchronous package. For example, with Spike Voice Messages, you can record and share a voice message from your email, Group chat, or Note, and the recipient can listen when it suits them.
Similarly, rather than creating sprawling email threads for new projects, which can quickly become overwhelming, you can utilize team chat solutions such as Spike’s Groups, which allow multiple people to share text, voice messages, images, files, and more. People can then drop in when it suits them and know they’ll be up to date.
What’s more, don’t be afraid to use synchronous communication when it is more suitable. For example, if you need to talk through a complicated idea that will no doubt lead to discussion and questions from the other party, a voice or video call is far more appropriate.
Email overload is a surprisingly serious issue, with severe consequences for both individual employees and your company as a whole. From instant aches and pains to long-term health problems and an increasingly ailing company, the effects of email overload must be avoided.
As you try to manage email overload better, follow our tips to:
Develop an automated system (for incoming and outgoing mail)
Close your inbox from time to time
Reduce the number of emails you send
Set expectations on response times
Batch your time for focused work
Explore other communication tools
These are just some of the simple ways to help reduce the burden that email overload places on you, your employees, and your company as a whole. Remember, email is a convenience for you just as the phone was to the parents of a previous generation! So implement our tips and get back to viewing email as a modern communication tool and not something your dread opening each day when you arrive at the office.
If you’re interested in other tips and tricks to reduce email overload, check out the Spike Blog today. If you’ve got any practices that help you with keeping your inbox clean, let us know by tweeting us @SpikeNowHQ.
Last updated on 10/14/2021
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