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Bosses get burned out from responding to work emails, study finds

Responding to too many messages can be disruptive and affect the entire office

Photo (c) golubovy - Getty Images
A new study out of Michigan State University found that checking emails can have as many negative effects on bosses and managers as it does on employees.

The study, which was recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, found that when managers feel overwhelmed they tend to stick to smaller tasks in an effort to feel more productive.

“Like most tools, email is useful but it can become disruptive and even damaging if used excessively or inappropriately,” said lead researcher Russell Johnson. “When managers are the ones trying to recover from email interruptions, they fail to meet their goals, they neglect manager responsibilities, and their subordinates don’t have the leadership behavior they need to thrive.”

Emails interrupt progress

Emails can interrupt a good portion of workers’ days; the researchers found that both employees and managers spend over an hour and a half per day recovering from email-related interruptions. As troublesome as this can be for everyone in the workplace, the findings suggest the effects could be worse for managers.

Johnson and his team came to their conclusions after evaluating surveys collected from a group two days a week for two weeks. The surveys had managers report on their frequency in engaging in leadership behaviors, frequency and demand of emails, initiation of leadership behaviors, and their perceived progress on core job duties.

Johnson noted that on days when the managers reported more email interruptions, they not only engaged in fewer leadership-related behaviors, but also had lower perceptions on their work-related progress. He suggests that the effects go beyond just the managers’ own work, but can filter out into their other employees.

“The moral of the story is that managers need to set aside specific times to check email,” Johnson said. “This puts the manager in control -- rather than reacting whenever a new message appears in the inbox, which wrestles control away from the manager.

“As we cite in the paper, findings from prior research suggest that it takes time for employees to transition between email and work tasks, so minimizing the number of times they have to make that transition is to their benefit.”

Increased anxiety

Previous studies have shown the effects that answering emails can have on employees -- both during the workday and during their commutes.

At the end of last month, a study out of the University of West England found that if employees were on the clock while checking/responding to emails during their commutes, it would likely “allow for more comfort and flexibility.”

Based on interviews with commuters, the researchers found that many workers appreciate their commuting time and use it to tie up loose ends, both before and after the work day. Additionally, many workers use their time commuting to transition roles -- for example, those with children will need to get them ready for school at home and may use their commute as time to prepare for their responsibilities at the office.

Additionally, a study from Virginia Tech found that just the thought of being expected to check emails during non-work hours caused workers to experience anxiety. There were 100 employees in the study who experienced negative effects from excessive email checking, and their spouses were also affected.

The research team hoped that the study would encourage employers to set clear boundaries where checking emails are concerned, as being upfront about expectations can help assuage anxiety in employees.

“If the nature of the job requires email availability, such expectations should be stated formally as part of job responsibilities,” said study co-author William Becker, a Virginia Tech associate professor of management in the Pamplin College of Business.

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