E-mail: Sourge of the electronic era (Editorial)

It’s time to declare all-out war on e-mail.

What other conclusion can one have after reading reports in this issue on recent workforce studies blaming e-mail for high levels of employee stress?

From Canada comes a study by the Business and Economic Roundtable on Mental Health that identifies e-mail related stress and links it with employee mental health problems.

On the other side of the globe, Australians responding to a workforce survey voted e-mail the number-one cause of workplace stress.

So what is the boardroom waiting for? Any other identified threat to employee health and productivity would be met head on, yet e-mail continues to take its toll, slowly but steadily draining resources.

E-mail adds to stress levels that increase health costs, absenteeism and turnover. Productivity also suffers because of the time spent on e-mail.

Replying to e-mails and scanning and sorting e-information is a daily routine that consumes far too many person hours. A recent survey by Pitney Bowes states Canadian workers receive an average of 33 e-mails a day.

Take an extremely conservative estimate of an employee spending 30 minutes a day on e-mail. Calculating 48 working weeks a year, that’s 120 hours annually.

Multiply that by the number of employees you have with e-mail access and there’s a low estimate of how many person hours a year your organization is devoting to e-mail management. (Not counting the full day everyone spends reviewing accumulated e-mails upon return from a vacation.)

There is still hope in this battle to rein in e-mail overuse and protect an otherwise valuable communication tool and productivity enhancer.

The first step is to recognize the seriousness of the threat to employee stress and productivity, and then empower your organization to do something about it. Here’s a few suggesstions:

1. Institute e-mail-free Mondays when staff refrain from sending e-mails and even free themselves from the responsibility of checking messages that day. (You can also introduce restricted delivery periods when e-mail use is limited to urgent business matters.)

2. Don’t e-mail people you don’t know and ask them for tasks that cause them work. (The impersonal nature of e-mail seems to have freed people’s inhibitions about requesting favours from strangers, and outside forces are starting to take control of your employees’ agendas.)

3. Make it clear to marketing and advertising departments that e-mail is not an avenue for “cold-calling.” (Selling e-mail databases should be declared taboo.)

4. Develop comprehensive protocols for Internet/intranet use that control unwanted messages. (A manager at a large corporation recently complained about employees who send messages informing everyone in the firm about their vacation timing when only a handful of colleagues need the information.)

5. Use technology filters to sort out unwanted e-mail and train staff on their use. (More time should be spent on this key productivity topic during computer software training sessions.)

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