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Getting on top of unhelpful email habits can take up to a years’ hard graft

Employees can eradicate unhelpful work-email habits that stifle productivity and harm personal wellbeing - but it takes a particular self-belief and the will to put in a concerted effort.

The research, supported by Loughborough University’s Professor Tom Jackson, details how unproductive work-email habits can be eradicated through a structured programme of behaviour change in a 12-month study.

The study, which was led by the University of Sussex Business School and also featured academics from the universities of East Anglia, identified employees with high levels of self-belief as best able to curb unhelpful work-email habits. 

They recommend employers consider offering self-efficacy training for their staff before attempting to eradicate unwanted work email behaviour from their organisation.

Bad work-email habits can be difficult to overcome because change requires a clear rationale in terms of improving goal attainment and well-being, the authors said. Work-email habits are also difficult to eradicate because they are triggered by work relevant cues, and often by the actions of others.

The research found that eradicating bad work-email habits required a two-fold approach:

a) employees receiving regular rationalized plans alongside a stated intention to use these plans;
b) defining effective work-habit change in terms of improvements to both goal attainment and well-being over time.

Action plans might include recommendations on how to respond to a work-email cue such as turning off email notifications, or only checking email at pre-defined times during the day. Such an approach, the authors suggest, would allow individuals to recognize a new purpose to their activity, such as improving well-being or achieving task goals more effectively, and subsequently provide the cognitive switch that provokes an intention to change behaviour and achieve an individual’s goals.

Lead author Dr Emma Russell, Senior Lecturer in Occupational and Organisational Psychology at the University of Sussex Business School, said: “It is important for employers and employees to remember there are not universal rules around work-email habits. They are only ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in relation to how they affect an individual’s performance and well-being, so a habit that is good for one employee, may be bad for a colleague.

“They key is for each employee to consider for themselves if the habits they have developed really help in meeting work and well-being goals. If they don’t, individuals should devise a plan for doing things differently, tell colleagues how they are working to change their habits and then observe whether repeatedly trying-out the new action is helping to meet work and well-being goals.”

Kevin Daniels, Professor of Organisational Behaviour in the Norwich Business School at the University of East Anglia, said: “Work-habits are often embedded in organizational and group systems and so it is necessary to apply an intervention over the longer term and within a supportive environment. Employers can help support their employees to make the necessary changes to their work email habits by offering training, providing clear plans for changing specific habits, offering timely feedback to staff on how individual performance and well-being is improving, and by encouraging all members of the organisation to engage in changing email habits at the same time.”

Researchers developed a Work-habit Intervention Model (WhIM) and evaluated it by running a 12-month wait-list intervention study for workers in a UK-based international charity.

Participants were then randomly allocated to either the active intervention group or to a ‘wait-list’ control group.

Action plans were provided to participants in the active intervention group on a regular basis over two four-month periods, and participants stated their intention to use each plan.

The intervention group was provided with 23 evidence-based ‘email tips’, sent every two-weeks via email from the research team which together formed rationalized action plans across four categories for improving work-email use: (i) ‘Sending’ email, (ii) ‘Receiving/Checking’ email, (iii) ‘Managing’ email systems, and (iv) ‘Choosing Communication’ modes appropriately.

Change in work-email actions, and outcomes relating to any change were measured around 4-6 weeks after the end of the intervention period.

Tom Jackson, Loughborough’s Professor of Information and Knowledge Management, said: “Good intentions to eradicate any habit are important to promoting behaviour change but this alone will not succeed unless a suitable action plan has also been developed to rationalize and guide the employee to their goals. The work-habit change must be associated with a consequential improvement in relevant work-goal attainment and well-being to indicate that the intervention has been effective.”

Dr Russell said: “Curbing unhelpful work email habits can be very beneficial for employees and by extension employers. Our study found that long-term changes in work-email actions led to improvements in employees’ well-being and reduced negative emotions connected to their work.

“We found that employees with more stable personal resources for self-regulation, such as higher self-efficacy, were the most likely to override old, unwanted habits, by stating, acknowledging, and sticking to clear intentions and action plans.”

Key findings

  • Workers need to regularly engage with rationalized plans of action and state their intention to use these, in order to change work-email habits.
  • Organizations should consider training workers to enhance their self-efficacy prior to implementing a work-email habit change intervention.
  • Providing regular feedback about the impact of work-email habit change on well-being and goal attainment is likely to make the change sustainable in the long-term.

Notes for editors

Press release reference number: PR 21/143

Loughborough is one of the country’s leading universities, with an international reputation for research that matters, excellence in teaching, strong links with industry, and unrivalled achievement in sport and its underpinning academic disciplines.

It has been awarded five stars in the independent QS Stars university rating scheme, named the best university in the world for sports-related subjects in the 2021 QS World University Rankings and University of the Year by The Times and Sunday Times University Guide 2019.

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Loughborough is consistently ranked in the top twenty of UK universities in the Times Higher Education’s ‘table of tables’ and is in the top 10 in England for research intensity. In recognition of its contribution to the sector, Loughborough has been awarded seven Queen's Anniversary Prizes.

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