Article The Future

Understanding inbox stress: email etiquette, team work and brain chemistry

Researchers tell us the volume of email we deal with on a daily basis is stressing us out. But what impact does the way we actually compose our messages have on team dynamics?

Many apologies (well, you know what I mean) for not getting back to you sooner. I have been very busy lately (replying to more important emails than yours) and time just ran away with me. I know the deadline has passed (which is why I’m only emailing now), but if there’s anything I can do please do let me know (not really - if I wanted to be involved I would have emailed you).

Rgds (well, you know what I mean)

Bob (Your hierarchical superior, and don’t you forget it)

Managing daily email communication can be a taxing and emotional experience. Who hasn’t spent at least some time in the recent past staring at an email from a colleague or superior, trying to interpret the subtext? But if you feel anxious, irritable and weirdly emotionally charged when dealing with your inbox, rest easy. You are by no means alone.

In a 2012 experiment, researchers hooked information workers up to heart-rate monitors and proved just how physiologically anxious email makes the average 21st century worker bee. When the researchers removed email from the workers’ lives for five work days the physiological signs of stress (such as a thumping heart rate) receded. The bottom line is stark; email is stressing us out.

“I open my inbox with a sense of dread, mixed with trepidation, mixed with anticipation,” says Arthur Harris (not his real name), a management level employee at a mid-sized European company. “Dread at the idea that my day may be taken away from me by whatever is in there. Anticipation because it is such a key moment. A part of you is always mildly intrigued as to what the day holds for you… and then, in the background, there’s an underlying resentment of the medium itself. Email is like the conductor in the orchestra of your work life, and you play to it. There’s a sense of powerlessness.”

Harris’ emotions are confirmed by research. The aforementioned heart-rate monitor study was carried out by Gloria J Mark and Stephen Voida, of the University of California Department of Informatics (1). In the backdrop to their study, the authors highlight existing research around corporate email usage patterns, including the rather startling nugget that information workers check their email, on average, 36 times an hour, or roughly once every 1.7 minutes.

The study goes on to explore the conventional paradigms of email overload and distraction, and the stress and performance quality issues they cause. A less-explored area, however, is the social complexity generated by fraught email interactions.

Context, politics and hierarchy

Each email contains an implicit request for action from the sender. In the corporate context, this request is shot through with context, politics and hierarchy. All of which means the details of the interaction (the time taken to reply, whether a reply is sent at all, the tone of the message, etc) can have a powerful impact on the social dynamic within the office or the operational team.

One of the clues as to what might be going on in our brains when we engage in corporate communication lies, somewhat counter-intuitively, in the much touted link between social media and the release of the so-called “generosity trust chemical” oxytocin in our brains. From around 2012, Fast Company (2) and many other business publications began highlighting research from neuroeconomists showing that the innately affirmative dynamic of social media interaction delivers regular and predictable spikes in our oxytocin levels. This research has laid an important initial foundation for our evolving understanding of why social media is so addictive. Simply put, we get a brain chemistry kick from the essentially positive interactions that constitute life in the land of Facebook and Twitter.

So, what happens to your brain chemistry when your boss simply ignores your email? Or when you get caught in a work email spat? Might there be a kind of metaphorical oxytocin withdrawal going on?

There’s little hard research to refer to here, but in a paper titled Is Negative Attention Better Than No Attention: The Comparative Effects of Ostracism and Harassment at Work (3), authors from business schools in Canada and Iran offer an intriguing insight. Their research suggests that while most people believe that being bullied or overtly harassed at work is “worse” than simply being ignored, the opposite can in fact often be true. Workers asked to communicate their emotions in real world office situations reliably report ostracism as a fundamentally more negative emotional experience than direct harassment. The case can thus be made that seemingly low-level communication conflicts, including the common occurrence of simply ignoring a team member’s email, could heighten intra-office/team tension.

“First of all, you rationalise email silence by saying someone’s very busy. You console yourself in that way,” says Harris. “Then after a while you realise you’ve rationalised something away when something must be going on, and then you construct stories to explain it. By the time you’ve crossed that threshold you’re interpreting the silence as form of communication.”

In the world of corporate email, the emotional subtext that Harris describes is ever present. Often it is thoughtless and benign, but when conflict situations arise it can dominate the individual’s perceptions of their place in the office, and the team. Within this context, it’s interesting to note the tendency to compartmentalise formal and informal communication. When people need to communicate personally and directly, many eschew email, perceived as very much “on the corporate record”, in favour of the more intimate and informal channel of direct messaging services such as Facebook chat, Skype chat or Whatsapp. This tendency reflects a growing global collective sense of work email as a formal, dryly functional medium devoid of human warmth: a medium that can easily be emotionally perceived by workers as an ongoing sign of their low status within the organisation.

Susan Blair (not her real name) is someone with a relatively light-hearted view of her inbox. A worker in a creative agency, she says: “My inbox is one of the things I look forward to, especially the personal mails. I hope not to find too many work-related mails!” I spoke to six different professionals for this article and she was the only one to report an unequivocally positive emotional relationship with her inbox. Significantly, she doesn’t compartmentalise her email, choosing instead to use her work email address for private and professional communication. She says she has fun with her personal email at work. In this she appears to be something of an exception - fun is not a word many people use to describe their work inbox nowadays.

In the corporate world the shared, unstated communication philosophy so easily held by good friends is markedly absent. In fact, generally the opposite applies. Team members come from different life contexts and hold different assumptions as to what constitutes rudeness and/or politeness. Just how rude are you being when you fail to reply to a colleague’s email? Is it efficient or insulting to only use the subject line for your message? What about saying hello before you start your message, and then saying goodbye? These and many other aspects of email communication have the potential to constitute a positive company communication culture. But for this culture to be an asset - rather than a quiet stress generator - it has to be actively engineered.

One way to do this is to get staff involved in discussions designed to unearth everyone’s personal assumptions as to what constitutes reasonable, polite and effective email behaviour. A light-hearted workshop, followed by a short bullet point manifesto, has the potential to bring insidious areas of email misunderstanding into the light. The bullet points that emerge from this process will probably be less important than the discussion itself, which can diffuse tension simply by getting colleagues talking about aspects of communication they hadn’t thought about, in a collective sense, before.

Is legislation the answer?

The German minister of employment was recently reported as considering new legislation that will prohibit companies contacting employees by email outside of office hours (4). There is also regular reportage in the global business press of companies seeking to control the volume of email employees have to deal with. Many organisations toy with ideas like limiting the number of inter-office emails sent per day. The idea here is to force employees to walk across the open plan floor and talk to their colleagues rather than firing off another time and energy-sapping missive. These measures could play an important role in reducing the stress generated by simply having to read, assess and manage hundreds of messages a day.

We remain, however, fundamentally lashed to our inboxes, and this reality seems unlikely to change any time soon. It might therefore be time for organisations to cast their strategic light beyond how many emails we send and receive to include consideration of how we go about sending and receiving them. This expanded view might deliver surprising organisational benefits, and could well lighten the emotional weight of doing that thing we can’t help doing, 36 times an hour.

Connect with Andrew Miller on Twitter: @miller_aka


(1) “A Pace Not Dictated by Electrons” An Empirical Study of Work Without Email by Gloria J Mark and Stephen Voida with Armand V Cardello, 2012


(3) Is Negative Attention Better Than No Attention? The Comparative Effects of Ostracism and Harassment at Work: Jane O’Reilly, Sandra L Robinson, Jennifer L Berdahl, Sara Banki


How this article was made

  • 715 points
  • 19 backers
  • 3 drafts
Creative Commons License

Also in this issue