Psychology researchers have asked people to consider stopping email from constantly running in the background and to switch off push email to combat growing perceptions of pressure and stress.

The research by Britain’s Future Work Centre polls 2000 workers about how their behaviours and mindset when it comes to email creates “pressure and stress” at work and at home.

The survey asked respondents a series of questions relating to their “perception of the email experience”, including:

  • Whether they feel pressure from colleagues or clients to check email outside of working hours
  • If they feel pressure from family or friends to stop checking email when they’re with them
  • Whether work-related emails are the cause of arguments or friction in their personal life, and
  • If email allows them to work more efficiently, productively and in a more flexible way

Though the results do not reveal concrete causal links between certain behaviours and email stress, they do provide evidence of links that will be examined in further research.

The researchers also argue that, even without causality, there’s enough to suggest that some “behaviour changes (i.e. what you can do differently) and mindset changes (i.e. how you think about email)” may be warranted.

For example, through the research they found a “strong significant correlation between using push email and perceived email pressure.”

“This means that people who told us they used push email on their devices were more likely to report higher perceived email pressure,” the researchers said.

“[However], we can’t be certain on the direction of causality. That is, we don’t know if push email is on by choice, if it is a response to perceived email pressure or if pressure is a result of being on the receiving end of push email.”

Still, the researchers recommended that “unless it’s a requirement of your role, consider how much push email is helping you.”

“If you find yourself distracted and/or pressured by the constant pinging of newly arriving emails, consider updating your device to only download emails when you instruct it,” they advised.

“This can provide a sense of control over the flow of emails and allow you to concentrate on other tasks.”

Other behaviours that people exhibited when dealing with emails also contributed to a lack of control and therefore higher perceived stress levels, the researchers found.

“People who reported leaving their email on all day were much more likely to report perceived email pressure. Again, we don’t know if they leave their email on all day in order to deal with perceived email pressure, or whether all-day email is the cause of email pressure,” they said.

“Checking email earlier in the morning or later at night is [also] associated with higher levels of perceived email pressure.”

The researchers suggested that instead of running email constantly in the background at work, that users “consider launching [their] email application only when [they] want to use email and closing it for periods when [they] don’t wish to be interrupted.”

“In other words, use email when you intend to, not just because it’s always running,” the researchers said.

While email volumes could also affect stress, the researchers were able to find only a “small correlation” with perceived stress levels.

“So, the volume of emails received does play a part in pressure but isn’t the number one factor,” they added.

The researchers also suggested some of the perceived pressure might be imagined, and that reflecting on our mindset to email and challenging it could help de-stress.

Information Age has previously explored the psychology of Outlook and the goal of “inbox zero” – and this latest British research backs the idea that email is likely to be distracting people from their actual jobs.

However, the Future Work Centre research goes a step further in seeking to explore whether certain personality traits might be behind the ease with which people deal with email.

“It may be that some aspects of personality leave us with a tendency to check email more frequently or to respond with anger as soon as we sense disrespect in an email we receive. Or indeed, a tendency to use email more effectively as an aid to our own personal productivity,” the researchers postulated.

Though they confirmed that “personality influences how much perceived email pressure results in positive or negative work-life balance outcomes”, further research may spell out what specific traits make some more than others susceptible to the downsides of email use.