How to break bad email habits at work

By Emma Russell and Kevin Daniels and Marc Fullman and Tom Jackson—The Dialog 3 minute Learn

It’s a formidable feat that work email has managed to reign supreme as essentially the most prolific and favored communication instrument in at this time’s digital working world, regardless of the emergence of arguably extra useful alternate options like Slack, Yammer, and MS Groups.

But it will not be by means of energetic selection that email continues to dominate our working lives. Many academic studies have found that there’s a sure addictive, recurring element to our use of work email that may be troublesome for us to change. At a time when there are such a lot of issues being raised about always-on work cultures and our right to disconnect, email is the bane of a lot of our working lives.


Our analysis

We had been approached by a global U.Ok.-based charity that was involved about latest staff-survey outcomes suggesting that email was making a lot of their workers really feel confused. Regardless of making a major funding in alternate options to strive to curb the heavy reliance on work email, many employees had been nonetheless overusing it—reminiscent of sending messages to colleagues sitting close by, utilizing it for basic chitchat, or out of workplace hours.

We had been requested to design a long-term intervention that would assist the employees change their work-email habits to enhance their well-being and productiveness. We developed a mannequin utilizing present analysis on altering folks’s habits, and the way work email is used.

A key facet of the mannequin is that in contrast to, say, a public-health behavior, reminiscent of smoking, work habits are seldom good or bad, per se, however depend upon the employee’s position and work context. We think about {that a} work behavior ought to solely be outlined pretty much as good or bad in relation to whether or not it helps or hinders somebody from fulfilling their duties and targets, and the way it impacts their well-being.

For instance, for an individual in a customer-serving position, responding instantly to email notifications generally is a good behavior as they obtain their central goal of being responsive and useful to clients. However for a scientist or a author, the identical behavior could possibly be detrimental, as it’d distract them from concentrating on complicated work for lengthy intervals.

We ran our mannequin for a yr with 127 workers at the charity. These staff had responded to an open name to interact within the analysis and had been randomly assigned to an intervention or a management group that was roughly equal in dimension. For all individuals, we measured their email habits and work targets earlier than, throughout, and after this system.

We offered all staff within the intervention group with work-email suggestions over a interval of about 9 months, disseminating these one at a time frequently. Suggestions included a suggestion to flip off work-email alerts, particularly when doing one thing that demanded loads of focus, and to solely manually test their inbox each 30 to 40 minutes.

As every participant acquired a tip, they’d to affirm to us whether or not they can be implementing this suggestion or not. This meant they got management over whether or not it might be acceptable for them and the work they do. Staff within the management group didn’t obtain any suggestions.


Our outcomes confirmed that staff who acquired the guidelines and expressly dedicated to utilizing them had been extra probably to change their email habits total. Those that modified their habits loved an improved sense of well-being and their perceived skill to obtain work targets elevated.

The individuals who benefited most had been those with the best ranges of self-efficacy (a perception in a single’s skill to exert management over work and obtain fascinating outcomes). In different phrases, solely when folks imagine they’ll make the modifications will they really succeed and reap the advantages.

Key messages

Our analysis exhibits how vital it’s for initiatives aimed at altering workers’ habits to accommodate particular person preferences in order that they’ve management over what they alter. To enhance the email habits of staff, organizations ought to subsequently present plans to assist them resolve which habits may want altering whereas leaving the choice to the person about what to implement within the context of their position.

Coupled with this, organizations ought to present self-efficacy training to give staff the sources and confidence to change their habits. That may maximize the possibilities of success, serving to as many individuals as doable to ditch these dysfunctional work-email habits and develop higher, simpler methods of working.