The Biggest Source of Stress in Your Office -- and What to Do About It

Last Updated Jun 22, 2011 5:57 PM EDT

By Alex Coppola
Try not dealing with your inbox for a few hours -- then you'll know exactly what most of your employees would probably identify as their biggest source of workplace stress.

However, a recent study at Boston University suggests that email isn't necessarily the root of that stress. Instead, it's the "cultural symbol" upon which we foist all other work-inspired pressure and tension.

In her study "Email as a Source and Symbol of Stress," Associate Professor Stine Grodal calls email a "red herring." The study, conducted in partnership with Stanford University, looked at the relationship between stress and communication among three different groups of employees working in large, high-tech organizations.

Her findings: The messages piling up in our inboxes are a physical manifestation of the myriad other responsibilities weighing us down. While many participants cited email as the reason they worked long hours, the data actually suggest that long hours are more often tied to other workplace activities: time spent in meetings and teleconferences, for example.

"It's the time spent in those assemblies that makes one feel that email is stressful," explains Grodal. "While people are in meetings they can't process their email, and when they return to their offices, they're faced with a flood of messages."

Grodal does not, however, suggest that email is free from blame. She identifies a number of ways it contributes to workplace strain:

  • Time over volume: It isn't necessarily the amount of email we receive that overwhelms us, but the time it takes to read and respond to dense, cryptic or outright incoherent messages.
  • Nebulous rules: Because emails don't interrupt us like phone calls do, there are no rules around appropriate and inappropriate times to send emails. In this way, "email begins to blur the lines between work life and home life," says Grodal. "It comes at all times of day -- late at night and early in the morning."
  • Response time: Further complicating the rules, most senders have come to expect a reply within two hours, explains Grodal. "That puts a lot of pressure on people to respond to email outside of the work day," she adds.
So how can the small business owner combat what's become not just a workplace issue, but a cultural one as well? Grodal suggests first looking at the root causes. "Business owners can begin relieving workplace anxiety by reexamining the way they're using time during the workday, she says." That means reassessing the number and duration of meetings, among others, as well as reevaluating who really needs to attend.

As for email itself, Grodal underlines the importance of establishing rules that govern emailing outside of the workday. "Be very clear about what is expected from your employees in terms of responding to email, including while at home," she says. "It will help reduce the ambiguity around responsiveness and consequently their stress."

Mike Song is CEO of GetControl.net, a company that helps people use email more effectively. He agrees with Grodal that it's often the quality and clarity of the email that attributes to stress. "It's incredibly frustrating and time consuming to rifle through vague and verbose email," says Song. What's more, it's costly.

According to his data, over 80% of email requires clarification because it's so poorly written. That's almost two hours a day and roughly $1.2 trillion in wages a year that are wasted mismanaging email.

Song's suggestion: Tell employees to keep it simple. "Summarize and use bullet points," he says. "Make it clear what you want the email to accomplish by putting the action requested by your reader right up front." They're small adjustments that can have a huge impact on efficiency.

Readers, how do you eliminate the tension of email-related strain?

Flickr photo courtesy of ambimb, CC 2.0.