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Email addiction kills work-life balance

September 5, 2014

By Anthony Kaylin, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

Work life balance is important, but the one factor that can destroy it for white-collar employees is email addiction. A McKinsey study found that the average worker spends an estimated 28 percent of the workweek managing e-mail and nearly 20 percent looking for internal information or tracking down colleagues who can help with specific tasks.  Add in the unknown but substantial amounts of time people typically spend in meetings, and they have very little time left to complete actual work. It is no wonder the workday has expanded beyond the traditional 8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.

And for those who work from home, it is a never-ending cycle. Although they have greater scheduling flexibility, they often work longer hours than traditional office workers.  And the culprit is the same: inundation by email.

In Germany, Daimler has a solution for the email deluge.  Vacation is vacation. Employees set their emails to holiday mode which has an auto-reply function. But more importantly, it deletes all incoming email so when the employee comes back to work, his or her inbox is not overflowing.  “The idea behind it is to give people a break and let them rest,” a Daimler spokesman told Time magazine. “Then they can come back to work with a fresh spirit.”  In Germany this trend is catching on.

Could this work in the U.S.?  Email addiction is frighteningly serious.  According to Professor Gloria Mark, an authority on workplace behavior and a professor at the University of California, Irvine, U.S. employees check their messages 74 times a day, on average.

Another study in 2012 confirms the findings of email addiction.  In a survey of U.S. working adults sponsored by Good Technology, more than 80% of people continue working after they leave the office, for an average of seven extra hours each week – almost another full day of work. That totals close to 30 hours a month or 360 extra hours every year.

Jennifer Deal, a senior research scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership, surveyed smartphone-using white-collar workers and found that professionals, managers, and executives who carry smartphones for work report interacting with work 13.5 hours every workday. That translates to 72 hours per week including weekend work.  Her study also found that employees had only three hours on workdays for “discretionary” activities such as being with their family, exercising, showering, and all of those chores at home that someone has to do.

The smart phone is a real culprit.  Employees feel that they need to respond immediately to customer demands. Even more telling is the fact that 31 percent cannot turn the phone off even when they are going to bed.

Is this addiction a feel-good addiction, like running?  Endorphins are hormones that are released by the pituitary gland when running and give the runner a physical “high.”  Is it the same for smart phone users and their fingers?  Or is it more likely a feeling of importance and increased self-worth when there are emails to respond to, a psychological and emotional high?

Regardless, Ms. Deal believes that too much email masks other issues like poor management and failing to empower the employee to deal with situations.  For example, managers who email late at night show authority but not much sense. The issue could likely wait until morning.  Further, emails with a number of “cc”s are a major contributor to the overflowing inbox.  They may be symptomatic of employees failing to take responsibility by getting everyone involved in a decision, often another indicator of poor management.

Overall, email addiction is serious, crossing the pale when it comes to work/life issues. And, being an addiction, it is here to stay. Employers may need to step up and do something about it. They need to embed in their cultures the idea that email can easily be too much of a good thing.

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