Email Overload in the Workplace: A Multi-Dimensional Exploration
Undoubtedly, the last two decades have been monumental for the progress of information technology and communications in the workplace. The internet explosion has given us access—at our fingertips—to more information than previous generations had access to in entire lifetimes. The internet also gave birth to what is now the most-used means of communication in the modern workplace—email. In a mere twenty or so years, email has gone from being a computer company exclusive to a communication tool no modern corporation would envision itself without. While the internet has served as an ever-growing worldwide database of information, free for anyone (with the means) to explore at will, email functions quite differently.
Email is a way for anyone to beam information directly to us, whenever and from wherever they choose, whether it is welcome or not. Once an email has been delivered, it is content to sit, quiescent, in our inbox, waiting patiently to be discovered. When we receive the email, we can choose to do with it what we like: delete it, archive it, save it to respond to later, etc. Email has given us the power to manage our communications in ways that were not possible before, but, as is often the case with new technology, we have not yet mastered our managerial skills. This truth is becoming glaringly obvious as the total volume of email generated rapidly and consistently increases over time (“Internet Usage”); we are now being bombarded through email with more information than we can reasonably process, our overflowing and continually growing inboxes a constant reminder of our information management ineptitude. This is email overload, an all-too-real problem in today’s office workplace.
What was once described as trivial has become a dilemma so great that it forces employees to increase their work hours and leaves employers with significant losses in annual revenue. Christina Cavanagh, professor of management communications, University of Western Ontario, defines email overload as “[the] daily struggle to find and manage the relevant within a seemingly endless supply of incoming messages” (3). This paper is intended to be a multidimensional exploration of the email overload problem, incorporating a mixture of studies and opinions presented by various experts. A careful examination of the origins, causes, and effects of email overload, along with an assessment of our potential to overcome it will provide a comprehensive understanding of the subject. In analyzing these aspects of the email overload problem from a variety of unique historical, analytical, and cerebral perspectives; we can expect to discover that email overload is a multi-layered and significant, yet surmountable, problem worth acting and reflecting upon.
In her book Alphabet to Email, Naomi Baron provides a brief history of email in the workplace, along with some insight into the origins of the email overload problem. Baron would be the first to tell us the use of email has gone beyond its intended purpose in the workplace. She explains that it was introduced into the office in the 1980s on local area networks to enable communication among employers and employees about business matters, at which point its use was “fairly restricted” (226). But email evolved quickly alongside the internet, and employers began to see the potential advantages of email over telecommunication in the workplace. Baron points out two key factors in email’s takeover in the office: it is both less expensive and more convenient than telephone usage. By the mid-1990s, email use in the workplace was widespread (Baron 227).
Cheapness and handiness, however, are mere added benefits for a communication medium that, unlike its predecessors, has virtually no limitations to the kinds of discourse it allows. An analysis of how email and other language technologies fit into Baron’s four-way discourse matrix may better explicate this concept.
Table 1: Four-Way Discourse Matrix One-Way Communication Two Way Communication One Recipient Point-to-Point Monologue Point-to-Point Dialogue Multiple Recipients Broadcast Monologue Broadcast Dialogue Baron (228)
The matrix illustrates clearly how two different social variables (the directionality of the communication and the number of recipients) define four types of discourse: point-to-point monologue, point-to-point dialogue, broadcast monologue and broadcast dialogue. We can use the matrix to visualize the limitations, in terms of discourse facilitation, of different communication avenues. For example, television is used for broadcast monologue, as it is a one-way communication portal with multiple recipients. The telegraph, on the other hand, transmits point-to-point monologues (Baron 229). The telephone, while used primarily for point-to-point dialogue, can be used for other types of discourse, but only when used in conjunction with some other technology. For example, a telephone is only used for point-to-point monologue in conjunction with an answering machine (or voicemail); and it is only through a supplementary speaker (a feature commonly known as “speakerphone”) or conference-calling that we can use the telephone for small-scale broadcast dialogue. While email also emerged initially as a tool for point-to-point dialogue, it is—unlike the telephone—inherently capable of facilitating all types of communication in the discourse matrix, and it has certainly proven itself as such. Email is consistently used for point-to-point monologue, point-to-point dialogue, broadcast monologue and broadcast dialogue. Take a typical office, for example, where we can easily imagine the following: a project manager emailing an assignment to a subordinate, two employees exchanging emails about their weekend plans, the vice president sending a memo out detailing a new company policy, and a variety of employees reading and posting to a mailing list for people interested in new technology in the industry. These are but a few examples in a limitless list of ways that email is used as a channel for all varieties of discourse.
Clearly, email is, to an exorbitant extent, a more versatile conduit for discourse than any communication technology before it. Coupled with convenience and affordability, this inherently versatile nature makes email an ideal channel for information bombardment. A history lesson from Baron begs the question: How could we possibly not have foreseen the information overload problem coming to email, when the medium so openly invites it?
Before examining the causes of email overload, it will be helpful to define exactly what cause means in the context of email overload. I propose a twofold definition that can be derived from the email overload definition presented earlier. First, and most obviously, cause refers to the source(s) from which the “seemingly endless supply of incoming messages” originates. In other words, examining cause, in one sense, can provide us an answer to the question, “Where does all of this email come from?” Secondly, cause refers to the characteristics of the problem emails. In other words, if examining cause in the first sense tells us where this plethora of email is coming from, examining cause in another sense may provide us an answer to the question, “What exactly is it about all this email that makes it so difficult to manage?” Answers to such questions are not necessarily intuitive.
Take, for example, a commonly diagnosed source of email overload: SPAM. Nobody enjoys unsolicited email. It’s become such a nuisance, in fact, that that the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing (CAN-SPAM) Act was passed to combat it. Effective 1 January 2004, this federal law “requires unsolicited commercial e-mail messages to be labeled (though not by a standard method) and to include opt-out instructions and the sender's physical address. It prohibits the use of deceptive subject lines and false headers in such messages” (Spam Laws). In spite of the CAN-SPAM act, the amount of total internet email identified as SPAM is increasing at an estimated rate of 60% per year. Just four years ago, only 8% of U.S. email traffic was SPAM; it is estimated that today, at least 70% of all email being processed is SPAM (What is… par 7). SPAM infests our inboxes. It is used to spread nasty viruses and swindle innocent people. Its unwelcome advertisements annoy us to no end. On average, each of us receives around 2200 of these messages each year (What Is). Just this year, the state of Virginia made clear its intolerance for SPAM when it sentenced Jeremy Jaynes, a notorious spammer, to nine years in prison for his e-misdeeds (ABC News). SPAM is certainly a nuisance, and it has caused us all more grief than we ever would have expected; however, it is not a primary cause of email overload, contrary to popular belief. The aforementioned statistics, along with a universal hate for this pesky form of e-solicitation, make it tempting to blame SPAM for our email overload problems. In reality, we may be misdirecting our hostility. Consider the following: We all hate SPAM, and when we get it, we delete it (not all of us, unfortunately—in 2003, 28% of email users replied to SPAM (What is… par 5) because we know we don’t want it. SPAM is not the stuff we let linger in our inboxes waiting to be read, filed or replied to. Recent reports show that, as the total volume of SPAM has continued to increase, any obligation we may have felt to open and read it has steadily declined (Cavanagh 3). Because of its prevalence, there has also been a significant effort, on a variety of levels, to fight against it. The CAN-SPAM act exemplifies the federal government’s efforts. But private companies, too, have a very tangible interest in keeping SPAM to a minimum, notably because of its notoriety for spreading harmful, potentially intranet-destroying viruses. Most email utilities now also come equipped with relatively effective filters that either block out SPAM entirely or place it in a separate folder. In any case, the messages that we actually feel obligated to read (not SPAM!) are the ones that in fact cause us stress. In a 2003 study conducted by Cavanagh with randomly assigned participants at corporations scattered across North America, only 5% identified SPAM as one of their “top email pet peeves” (12). Where then, exactly, do the problematic emails come from? The main source is people—real people that we know and communicate with, often on a regular basis. Family, friends, coworkers, significant others, business partners, anyone and everyone with whom we would be prone to communicate with otherwise. While we may be very interested in communicating with these people, their communications often have characteristics that confuse and annoy us. Participants in Cavanagh’s study, for example, identified the following as their top “email pet peeves”: 1) rambling or unclear messages 2) trivial messages 3) misuse of distribute/cc/reply to all 4) unclear subject lines 5) emails that were better suited as conversations (12)
Unlike the easily-recognizable-as-garbage SPAM, emails with these characteristics do not necessarily indicate to us what we should do with them. Herein lies a major problem: Because email is an emerging technology, the guidelines for email management remain unclear. This, in itself, can certainly be frustrating; naturally, we do not appreciate anything done (or left undone) to blur these guidelines even further. An unclear subject line or a misused “cc” can easily add to an email’s ambiguity in this fashion.
Before email, interpersonal communication took place primarily through face-to-face conversations, phone conversations, or written or printed letters. Written and printed letters provided us with a tangible record of the communication, while phone and face-to-face conversations did not. Email, though, as we mentioned earlier, is being used as a conduit and record-keeper for all types of discourse, including casual conversational discourse. These types of messages are emerging as a major cause of frustration for a number of reasons. As conversational discourse has crept into the typed ranks of email, it has blurred the lines between conversational and written discourse. As readers and listeners, we interpret information differently. We also communicate differently as speakers and writers. Baron points out that, in recent history, writing has become more speech-like (188). Email is certainly no exception to this rule. On the sending end, we often write as if we were speaking. This can be a problem for the receiver, who has to read what we, essentially, spoke. This can explain peoples’ annoyances with rambling, unclear, and trivial emails, as well as those that may be considered “better suited for conversation.” Again, ambiguity of the message purpose remains as a major cause of frustration.
We may define effects as the assessable consequences, for individuals and organizations, of email overload. Although this definition is certainly more straightforward than the definition offered earlier for causes, it should be noted that the effects of email overload are of a “multi-level” nature. By this I mean that the direct effects of email overload affect each other, and can also spawn other effects of their own (see figure 1). For individuals, these effects include increased stress, increased time spent checking email (both inside and outside the office), longer working hours, and decreased productivity. For organizations, they include loss in revenue and decreased productivity. This section of the paper will serve to provide evidence for these effects, and then to expound further on what is seemingly the core effect of email overload.
Main Effect #1: Stress. Email overload directly affects individuals’ stress levels, as well as the amount of the time they spend managing their workplace email. The results of a quick Google search for “email overload stress” should be enough to convince any naysayers that email overload is a recognized worldwide as a cause of stress. The search yields approximately 176,000 results, displaying evidence of countless websites and books dedicated to alleviating email overload-induced stress—even about.com, a site that totes itself as a provider of “practical advice and solutions for every day life” and garners more than 20 million visitors each month, has an entry on the subject (Duncan). Results of a 2003 study conducted by the Australian Psychological Society showed that 69% of senior company managers find the daily task of responding to emails either mildly or moderately stressful. Two percent even classified it as “extremely stressful” (Australasian Business). In her findings, Cavanagh notes that constant stress from email overload has led to what participants in her study describe as mental fatigue (2). In fact, the “mental fatigue of overload and wrestling with messages” was named the number one dislike about workplace email in the study (11). In addition to fatigue, email overload stress may very well be capable of causing adverse health effects, as evidenced in a 2001 survey of two hundred United Kingdom managers and directors from the legal, marketing and financial service sectors, where 43% of participants claimed that they had actually fallen ill as a result of stress from information overload (Flood par 7).
Main Effect #2: Increased time spent on email management. As stress from email overload continues to escalate, so does the amount of time employees spend managing their email. Subsequently, office hours are increasing, workplace email is cutting into personal time, productivity is falling, and companies are losing money. We should note also that these effects only further exacerbate the stress effect. A 2004 study conducted by the ePolicy Institute and the American Management Association that surveyed 840 U.S. businesses showed that nearly 60% of participants spend at least 90 minutes per day on email alone. 20% spend between three and four hours per day on email, and 10% spend more than four hours—half their workday—per day on it (2004 Survey). In Cavanagh’s 2003 study, 72% of respondents reported that they spend significantly more time managing their email than they did just one year earlier (9), and that they work longer hours as a result (2). Seventy-four percent said they check their work email outside of work (during the week and/or on weekends) on a regular basis (2). As individuals continue to devote more time to managing their email at work, they are left with less time to complete other, often more productive tasks. Inevitably, this causes employers to lose money. Cavanagh estimates the average loss in annual revenue due to email overload to be 12% (5).
The effects of email overload are many, and their relationships somewhat complex. To foster a better understanding of the information presented in the previous three paragraphs, I have constructed the following diagram (figure 1), which presents a visual representation of the relationships between the major effects of email overload:
Figure 1: Major Email Overload Effects and their Relationships
Stress revisited. While the barrage of evidence presented earlier may confirm for us that email overload and stress go hand in hand, it fails to address what is arguably the most important aspect of the email overload problem: the nature of this stressful relationship between humans and overloaded email boxes. To adequately address this issue, we must search for knowledge beyond statistical data. Figure 1 reveals stress as the most interconnected of the major email overload effects. It is a direct consequence of email overload, as well as a result of other email overload effects. To discard stress’s recurring role in the email overload play would be naïve. We are compelled to ask, “Why, exactly, does email overload so negatively influence our dispositions? And what, exactly is it about email overload—and, subsequently, its effects—that causes us stress? Is there a deeper connection here?”
David M. Levy, author of Scrolling Forward, offers us some answers to these questions. After testifying extensively to the differences between our relationships with printed and electronic media, Levy concedes that there exists a human tendency that transcends all media boundaries: our need to organize. We are distraught by the disorder in our email just as we are distraught by the disorder on our desktops (120). The connection is logical, but still does not explain why we need to organize, or why disorder is so overwhelmingly bothersome. Eventually Levy arrives at the root of the problem: he proposes that there is a deeper level of fear tapped in all of us by disorder, even clutter: “Human cultural order is no more than a thin veneer overlaid on a much wilder, uncontrollable, unknowable and dangerous world” (129). It is true that, even after thousands and thousands of years, our control over the natural world is still very limited; and it is plausible that, due to the suffering we have incurred as a species at the hands of an unpredictable Mother Nature since our beginnings, we have developed a collective fear of those things which we cannot control. Under this presupposition, any sense of disorder, to whatever conscious extent, is a reminder of our lack of control over the world and a cause of anxiety—stress. Levy’s theory offers us a common cause for what we may be currently misidentifying as different kinds of stress from different sources. While we can choose whether or not to agree with Levy, he would likely tell us that identifying a common cause is the first step towards finding a common solution for the various effects of email overload.
Should We be Worried?
We understand, now, that email overload in the workplace is a significant problem. The number of emails we receive each day seems to be constantly increasing; stress is on the rise, as are working hours; productivity is falling, and apparently we are losing a considerable amount of money to the problem. These are all causes for concern, but certainly not for panic. Email is still a relatively new technology, and recent history tells us that mastering new technology takes time and practice. We may also take comfort in the fact that the fear of information overload has been around longer than we may have thought.
Carolyn Marvin, author of When Old Technologies Were New, shares some reassuring accounts of the formative years electric light, a technology that took people years to understand and decades to master. Consider that, not long after the electric light was invented, it was said that high altitudes caused the human body to become charged enough with electricity to explode, and that balls of fire the size of watermelons traveled through electric lines (Marvin 114). Even in the 1890s, more than a decade after the advent of the light bulb, there were regular reports of electricity-related accidents happening in the streets. In one accident case ruling, the Kentucky Court of Appeals even called electricity “the most powerful and dangerous element known to science” (Marvin 121).
Marvin also presents us with an interesting look at the shaping years of telephone use. She shows us that the fear behind being bombarded with useless information has been around for at least a century before the network boom of the 1990s. As the telephone gained popularity in the late 1890s, fire stations were reluctant to allow emergency calls via the phone, despite its obvious advantages over the telegraph in such a situation, for fear of being “constantly annoyed by false alarms and trivial questions” (103). This problem sounds all-too-familiar in the face of email overload. The constantly-ringing telephone was even reported to have driven people insane (132).
As we have a collective chuckle at what we now would call silly misconceptions from the past, we can gain comfort in knowing that we eventually succeeded in managing these technologies. Marvin explains that there is always an effort to restore equilibrium in the face of an emerging communication practice (5). As it turns out, despite all our struggles with email management, we have already begun to restore our own equilibrium. Cavanagh reports that average daily volumes of non-SPAM email appear to be stabilizing. While the North American average for workplace emails received per day is still increasing, the increases are consistently getting smaller (4). As the increase in daily emails decreases, individual email management skills appear to be getting better. We have decreased our average turnaround time for replying to email.
Evidence that we are beginning to move in the right direction in the battle against email overload is not an excuse for us to sit idly by and expect this problem to fix itself. As the effects of email overload are varied, so are the solutions to the problem. The first and most obvious step we need to take is avoiding sending email that possesses the annoying characteristics we explored earlier. Next, we may turn to the wide variety of tools being developed to help manage the content of our email inboxes better. Gmail, Google’s email service, for example, has done away with folders entirely and lets us rely on its powerful searching capabilities to find our email when we need it. Other companies are producing and selling email organizing software, like the Nelson Email Organizer, available at cohesiveknowledge.com. Exploring such solutions may help us manage our content better, but they are not a comprehensive solution. As Levy noted, the problem goes deeper than content management. To think that a software program alone can quell our uneasy tendencies is naive. Levy would suggest that, along with seeking out the best ways to manage our email content, we should try to find some sort of balance with the time we devote to email. We must not let ourselves be consumed by the anxiety and distress that email overload causes. The best advice, for now, might be gleaned from the final lines of Scrolling Forward: “For to look at our written forms is to see something of our striving for meaning and order, as well as the mechanism by which we continually create meaning and order. It is to see the anxiety within and behind this order. And it is also, potentially, to peek at that which lies beyond all formulations…not just as an object of fear and denial, but of wonder and celebration” (202).
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