We’re drowning in email. We check it incessantly — more than half of American workers check email at least once an hour. And at night. And on weekends. And on vacation.
The compulsion to constantly check, respond, clean out and keep on top of an overflowing inbox is actually making us stressed out, distracted, miserable and sick.
So sick that on January 1, a “right to disconnect from email” law went into effect in France as a way to reduce worker stress and burnout and improve quality of life.
But what if the ability to disconnect has less to do with legislation and more with our often irrational human psychology?
If you believe, as the French government does, that work-obsessed bosses and demanding work cultures are what drive people to stay tethered to the “electronic leash” of the office, “like a dog,” as one member of parliament put it, then passing a law requiring companies to negotiate new limits on after-hours email makes sense.
And it’s true, a manager who emails at all hours and expects a reply — or who doesn’t make clear that they don’t — is sending a powerful signal that they value working all the time. Research into work-life stress has found, not surprisingly, that workers will sometimes get up in the middle of the night to send an email with a late time stamp, so their workaholic bosses will think they, too, are working late into the night.
So you’d think that if top managers sent a very different signal — a series of emails, say, reminding workers that the offices will be closed and to enjoy their vacation — workers would be able to unplug, right?
To find out, ideas42, a nonprofit that uses behavioral science to understand and design solutions to thorny social problems — including a current project on work-life conflict that the Better Life Lab is a partner on — decided to run an experiment over the winter holiday, using themselves as guinea pigs.
Ideas42 bills itself as having a “supportive” work culture, where the value of work-life balance and time to rest and recharge is made clear. And prior to the break, top managers sent out several emails reminding its 74 employees in New York, Boston and Washington that the offices would be closed for the week.
Dan Connolly, a senior associate, wanted to see if those were strong enough signals to get everyone to disconnect. He figured they might be.
Plus, the fact that everyone would be off at the same time and encouraged to unplug could create a strong “network effect.” Humans are social creatures, he explained. We’re influenced by what others in our social networks do, and we feel most comfortable when we conform to the social norms around us. When a single worker takes vacation in the summer while everyone else is working, their discomfort from deviating from that norm can drive them to guiltily check email and stay connected.
With the office closed and everyone off, Connolly figured the new norm would make checking email uncomfortable, so people would be more likely to disconnect.
Except they didn’t. Not entirely.
The result was “mixed success,” Connolly said after analyzing the firm’s server logs. The amount of email traffic definitely dropped, especially on the holiday weekends. But it never quite consistently flatlined the way Connolly was hoping.
“It seems we have more to learn about how to truly encourage people to disconnect,” Connolly wrote in a recent blog post.
The question is, why can’t we seem to rein ourselves in when it comes to email? And, other than enforcing a law, how do we stop?
Our brains are wired to constantly seek novelty, and every new email that lands in our inbox with a ping sends a dopamine-fueled shiver of excitement through our cerebrum. Turning off notifications and setting and communicating clear email rules in workplaces and after hours can disrupt that addictive dopamine loop.
But behavioral science would suggest there’s more than just neurotransmitters at work.
Connolly attributes some of the inability to unplug to the psychology of the human ego. We often overestimate how vital we are at work, he said. And we often don’t see how our actions affect others.
For instance, on the first day of vacation, Connolly’s own priority was to clear out his inbox so he could feel good about disconnecting. “But then I’m making it hard for other people to do the same thing. I close something on my end, but what I’ve actually done is make it pop up in three other people’s email. And we’re all doing that to each other.”
Thinking about how your choices impact others, and taking their perspective into account, can help counter such egocentrism. That, and perhaps investing in good technology, like Boomerang, that enables you to write your email to get it out of your head and inbox, but schedule it to go out during office hours.
Another factor that may be driving our inability to disconnect is the peak-end rule, whereby people tend to judge an experience based on what it felt like at its most intense point and at the end. In other words, what we remember most about our inbox is just how awful it feels to face all those unanswered emails — that endless, running to-do list of other people’s priorities — that have piled up while we were away. So we keep checking just to avoid that pain.
Again, technology could help — having all emails sent into a specific folder while you’re away, rather than to your inbox, could make returning feel less overwhelming. Creating a workplace that allows for time to ease back into work, rather than plunge in at full speed, could also make reentry less painful, and disconnecting feel less impossible.
Another factor could be our human predilection for making decisions based on short-term payoffs, like deciding to fall back into a warm bed in the morning rather than get up and exercise.
“We love to get things ‘done,'” explained Iris Bohnet, a behavioral economist at the Harvard Kennedy School. “Email is terrible for that. If you only respond to these 10 emails, it feels like an accomplishable task.”
To counter such present-biased preference, Bohnet suggests creating commitment devices with co-workers or managers, such as agreeing to check emails in batches at specific times, rather than continuously.
Ironically, if we did stop checking email, we really wouldn’t miss that much. In a survey, Daniel Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke, found that only 11% of the emails in our inboxes require immediate attention. The other 89% can wait.
That’s a lesson Richard Sheridan, chief executive of the software company Menlo Innovations, told me he learned the hard way. Sheridan created a work culture that discourages long hours and checking emails and calls after hours so workers will be rested and refreshed when they come in in the morning. He once chastised an employee for checking her email from Hong Kong, when she was supposed to be on vacation. Yet he himself, an “inbox zero” fanatic, has had a hard time disconnecting.
Before a recent vacation, an assistant promised to handle his inbox so he wouldn’t have to come back to an avalanche of nagging, unanswered emails. When he returned, he was shocked to find there were only 18 that truly required his attention.
“Email is one of those tip-of-the-iceberg indicators” that we all operate in a culture that has come to value work and busyness above all else. Sheridan said. “The real underlying problems go much deeper.”
And that will take more than a law to fix.