Many organisations worldwide are benefiting from the use of electronic mail (email) for workplace communication. However employees continue to report email concerns regarding email stress. Unlike any other email research to date this research explored the physiological and psychological impact of email on employees at a UK government agency, using blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol levels and paper-based diaries. The findings show a link between email and stress and indicate that employees were more prone to increased stress during information gathering (reading) and sharing (sending) activities, and less susceptible during information management and retrieval activities (finding and filing email messages). Below is a reading from an individual from the study.

Email Stress

Here is the mean cortisol reading from a day with email and a day without email:

The mean cortisol recorded from all 30 participants, (90 samples collected in Day 1 as indicated by the red line), demonstrated a normal cortisol metabolism curve and diurnal rhythm, with highest levels observed in the early morning followed by continued gradual decline and lowest levels reported at the end of the day (which is normal). However, the aforementioned sample of participants who showed increased blood pressure and heart rate during email use (as indicated with the green line in Figure 4) were instead found to release constant cortisol concentration levels in the body between Sample 2 (mean nmol/l = 0.709) and Sample 3 (mean nmol/l = 0.7). This indicated a heightened cortisol response occurred for those participants during email use, which both supports blood pressure and heart rate readings, and is a key display of participants’ sustained or raised levels of stress.

Identifying underlying reasons for the reduced and increased stress levels are likely to be multifaceted but the majority of participants (26) did relate to email stressors, such as email overload. This finding is similar to Hair et al.’s (2007) research which identified ‘email stressed’ as a key characteristic that users denote themselves to be. This research showed that employees were glad to receive new email for timely information, in response and in gratification for work complete. Employees were particularly annoyed to receive new email when irrelevant, an immediate response was required or when it interrupted and distracted them from their work tasks. The employees also raised a number of adverse effects such as increased expectations, misinterpretation, alienation, and blame culture, as a result of email use.
Mano and Mesch (2010) suggested email gave rise to side-effects, such as increased psychological burden and distress that directly affected well-being. The results of our study support the assertion that when information is organised, in this case when email is filed, a sense of well-being (i.e. low blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol) occurs, and a sense of ill-being (i.e. high blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol) occurs when email is unfiled. These physiological findings concur with the non-physiological studies by Whittaker and Sidner (1996), and Peric (2009) that users who file are less likely to suffer from stress than those who do not file. This research also supports Hogan and Fishers’ (2006) research that implicate users are less likely to suffer email overload if they feel that they can keep on top of their email through filing.
Kanungo and  Jains’ research (2008) hypothesised that high stress levels could be found to occur when the rate of incoming email increased. Our findings support that an increased level of email is likely to cause stress, for example going from no email to receiving email causes stress. It is unclear to whether the volume of email is an addition stress factor and at certain daily volumes the employee might show signs of fatigue and reduced productivity as found in Jackson’s research (Jackson, 2009). As already mentioned, the use of single physical responses to monitor the effects of email on users were conducted by Taylor et al. (2008), which found blood pressure was higher when a recipient received email; and Jackson (2010) – with the use of heart rate monitoring showed individual stress was causal of email use. Our results showed four employees showed physical signs of elevated stress, therefore increased blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol secretion, during email use.  Six participants showed sharp increases in blood pressure and seven with an increased heart rate on return to email use after ‘email free time’. More specifically than the other studies our results showed the most common reported email tasks were reading and sending email and 18 participants showed an increase in blood pressure and heart rate when undertaking these tasks as opposed to finding and filing email messages.
Over the years email has been the focus of many research studies and is sometimes portrayed as a bad communication medium. Indeed, in this study it has shown that email causes stress when compared to having email free time. However, if email is compared to other ways of communicating which was also observed in this study, email is no worse than any other media. In Figure 3, 5 and 7 it also shows an increase in stress whilst undertaking non-email activity. This study indicates that it is how we use communication media which is likely to increase stress levels, and in particular the situation that we find ourselves in, in having to multi-task to complete tasks on time.  Multi-tasking email alongside other communication media, such as phone and face-to-face meetings, increases the risk of becoming stressed. For example the results showed the majority of participants (92%) displayed a negative stress response, with many recording elevated blood pressure (23) and heart rate (14) readings, during email and phone use. With multifunctional devices like Blackberry’s and iPhones allow workers to be accessible 24-hours a day unlike ever before and because of this it is likely that there will be an increase in stress levels. Another concerning aspect is that many employees do not realise that they are stressed, as in this study users perceived themselves not to be stressed when the physiological findings showed their bodies were under increased stress. This would indicate that employees might find it difficult to self-regulate their use of communication media to ensure they do not become overwhelmed by stress. The significance of this is that long term short sharp increases such as this can lead to long term chronic health conditions such as hypertension, thyroid disease, heart failure and coronary artery disease (Info Blood Pressure2008; Medtronic 2010).

Media Coverage

Do emails increase your stress levels and affect your health? – Loughborough University Professor Tom Jackson, who conducted the research, spoke to Scotland Tonight

Loughborough Echo – Emails give us stress! »


Press Coverage in the USA

Inc Magazine, USA
How email is ruining your health »

Statesman, USA
How email is ruining your health »

Press Coverage in New Zeland

Email stress could damage our hearts
Researchers from Loughborough University in the UK tracked 30 government office workers and found that when they were reading and sending emails their blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol levels all increased. Cortisol is released by the adrenal

Press Coverage in India