E-mail and work: enhancing productivity or source of stress?

E-mail … we hate it, we love it. We use it, we have to use it. Or, do we?

Is it essential to work? Does it really enhance productivity? Or, does it ramp up stress, cause health problems, and actually reduce work productivity? Is there a better way to do work?

What does the research say?

Featured articles (these articles have been added to the Science Primary Literature Database):

*La Torre, G., De Leonardis, V., & Chiappetta, M. (2020). Technostress: How does it affect the productivity and life of an individual? Results of an observational study. Public Health, 189, 60-65. [Cited by]

“Objectives: Technostress is an emergent phenomenon related to the pervasive use of technology and is associated with the increased computerization and digitalization seen over recent decades. This cross-sectional observational study aims to investigate the impact that stress from the use of technologies (i.e. technostress) has on the productivity and life of an individual.

Study design: Cross-sectional study.

Methods: Data were collected using a previously proposed and validated questionnaire. The questionnaire was translated into Italian and transformed into an online format with a Google Docs form. The questionnaire was then associated with a link and QR code (also available in paper format) and disseminated manually and through the use of e-mail and social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter.

Results: The study sample included 313 individuals, 54.6% of whom were women. The mean age of the sample participants was 34.7 years. The dependent variables were technstressors (i.e. techno-overload, techno-invasion, techno-complexity, techno-insecurity and techno-uncertainty), role stressors (i.e. role overload and role conflict) and productivity. In the multivariate analysis, techno-overload was significantly associated with female gender (β = 0.128; P = 0.018) and unemployment (β = −0.303; P < 0.001); techno-invasion was significantly associated with female gender (β = 0.098; P = 0.081) and degree-level education (β = 0.149; P = 0.008); techno-complexity was significantly associated with female gender (β = 0.107; P = 0.057) and being married (β = 0.113; P = 0.046); techno-uncertainty was significantly associated with unemployment (β = 0.337; P < 0.001); role overload was significantly associated with female gender (β = 0.160; P = 0.014) and productivity was significantly associated with degree-level education (β = 0.125; P = 0.057).

Conclusions: This observational study evaluated the phenomenon of both work-related and non–work-related technostress of 313 individuals aged between 16 and 65 years. The present study investigated the impact of five techno-stressors, two role stressors and productivity. The results indicate that different techno-stressors are significantly associated with female gender, degree-level education and unemployment. Further research in this field is required to better understand and clarify the epidemiology, clinical presentation and determinants of technostress.”

*Park, Y., & Haun, V. C. (2018). The long arm of email incivility: Transmitted stress to the partner and partner work withdrawal. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 39(10), 1268-1282. [Cited by]

As email communication becomes increasingly pervasive in the workplace, incivility can be manifested through work email. Integrating conservation of resources theory with spillover–crossover frameworks, the authors propose and test a couple‐dyadic model regarding email incivility’s effects on work withdrawal for employees and their domestic partners. Online survey data were collected from 167 dual‐earner couples at multiple time points. Results from actor–partner interdependence mediation and moderation modeling showed that when employees experience more frequent incivility via work email during a week, they withdraw from work the following week. Furthermore, employees transmit their stress to their domestic partner on the weekend, and, as a result, the partner also withdraws from work the next week. More important, employees’ negative work reflection during the weekend exacerbates the effects of email incivility on stress transmission to their partner, whereas the partner’s negative work reflection during the weekend aggravated the effects of transmitted stress on their work withdrawal. The study sheds light on the stress effects of email incivility that span work and family domains and affect both employees and their partners.”

*Sonnentag, S., Reinecke, L., Mata, J., & Vorderer, P. (2018). Feeling interrupted—Being responsive: How online messages relate to affect at work. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 39(3), 369-383. [Cited by]

Being constantly connected to others via e‐mail and other online messages is increasingly typical for many employees. In this paper, we develop and test a model that specifies how interruptions by online messages relate to negative and positive affect. We hypothesize that perceived interruptions by online messages predict state negative affect via time pressure and that perceived interruptions predict state positive affect via responsiveness to these online messages and perceived task accomplishment. A daily survey study with 174 employees (a total of 811 day‐level observations) provided support for our hypotheses at the between‐person and within‐person level. In addition, perceived interruptions showed a negative direct association with perceived task accomplishment. Our study highlights the importance of being responsive to online messages and shows that addressing only the negative effects of perceived interruptions does not suffice to understand the full impact of interruptions by online messages in modern jobs.”

*Stich, J., Tarafdar, M., Stacey, P., & Cooper, C. L. (2019). E-mail load, workload stress and desired e-mail load: A cybernetic approach. Information Technology & People, 32(2), 430-452. [PDF] [Cited by]

“Purpose: Using e-mail is a time-consuming activity that can increase workload stress. The purpose of this paper is to investigate the relationship between the individual’s e-mail load, workload stress and desired e-mail load, drawing from the cybernetic theory of stress.

Design/methodology/approach: Based on prior theory, the authors first hypothesized relationships among e-mail load, workplace stress and desired e-mail load. The authors then tested these relationships on a sample of 504 full-time workers in the USA, using survey data and covariance-based structural equation modeling techniques.

Findings: The authors find that higher e-mail load is associated with higher workload stress; higher workload stress is associated with lower desired e-mail load; lower desired e-mail load is associated with lower e-mail load; and higher workload stress is associated with higher psychological strain, higher negative emotions and lower organizational commitment.

Originality/value: The study provides a novel understanding of workload stress due to e-mail load, through the lens of cybernetic theory. It contributes to the e-mail overload and technostress literatures by conceptualizing desired e-mail load as a potential outcome of workplace stress and as a regulator for e-mail load. For practitioners, the study highlights the importance of managing employees’ e-mail load to prevent the negative effects of workplace stress and associated strains.”

*Zaman, S., Wesley, A., Silva, D. R. D. C., Buddharaju, P., Akbar, F., Gao, G., . . . Pavlidis, I. (2019). Stress and productivity patterns of interrupted, synergistic, and antagonistic office activities. Scientific Data, 6(1), 264. [PDF] [Cited by]

“We describe a controlled experiment, aiming to study productivity and stress effects of email interruptions and activity interactions in the modern office. The measurement set includes multimodal data for n = 63 knowledge workers who volunteered for this experiment and were randomly assigned into four groups: (G1/G2) Batch email interruptions with/without exogenous stress. (G3/G4) Continual email interruptions with/without exogenous stress. To provide context, the experiment’s email treatments were surrounded by typical office tasks. The captured variables include physiological indicators of stress, measures of report writing quality and keystroke dynamics, as well as psychometric scores and biographic information detailing participants’ profiles. Investigations powered by this dataset are expected to lead to personalized recommendations for handling email interruptions and a deeper understanding of synergistic and antagonistic office activities. Given the centrality of email in the modern office, and the importance of office work to people’s lives and the economy, the present data have a valuable role to play.”

Questions? Please let me know (engelk@grinnell.edu).

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