School of Business and Economics

News

8 Dec 2021

How to break bad email habits at work

Professor Tom Jackson writes in the Conversation on how our bad work email habits can be broken in order to reduce their dominance in our working lives.

It is an impressive feat that work email has managed to reign supreme as the most prolific and favoured communication tool in today’s digital working world, despite the emergence of arguably more functional alternatives like Slack, Yammer and MS Teams.

Yet it may not be through active choice that email continues to dominate our working lives. Many academic studies have found that there is a certain addictive, habitual component to our use of work email that might be difficult for us to change. At a time when there are so many concerns being raised about always-on work cultures and our right to disconnect, email is the bane of many of our working lives.

Our research

We were approached by an international UK-based charity that was concerned about recent staff survey results suggesting that email was making many of their employees feel stressed. Despite making a significant investment into alternatives to try to curb the heavy reliance on work email, many staff were still overusing it – such as sending messages to colleagues sitting nearby, using it for general chit-chat, or out of office hours.

We were asked to design a long-term intervention that could help the staff to change their work-email habits to improve their wellbeing and productivity. We developed a model using existing research on changing people’s habits, and how work email is used.

A key aspect of the model is that unlike, say, a health habit such as smoking, work habits are seldom good or bad per se, but depend on the worker’s role and work context. We consider that a work habit should only be defined as good or bad in relation to whether it helps or hinders someone from fulfilling their tasks and goals, and how it affects their wellbeing.

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