Life

What is email fatigue and why is it so toxic?

Posted by
Anna Brech
Published

Email can be a huge source of stress in modern working life, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We explore why daily messaging has become so toxic – and what emerging tech is doing to stem the tide.

Sophie Carr, a freelance PR director, has spent the past three hours struggling with a client pitch. Every few minutes, a notification pings on her phone. She glances at one or two, then – getting increasingly frustrated – switches her phone off.

Yet the thought of those messages stays with her, nagging away like an itch. She replays unfinished conversations and mulls over how she will reply, even as she tries to focus on the task at hand.

The pitch gets finished, but only at a price. “I was exhausted afterwards,” recalls Sophie. “And it’s not like it was a one-off, either: the same thing happens every time I try to focus on something big. It’s like wading through treacle.”

The problem of the ‘open loop’

A woman on her phone
Multiple messages drain energy and concentration

Sophie is far from alone in her plight. The average professional spends four hours a day dealing with email, and infinitely more time just thinking about those messages.

The effect of this so-called “email fatigue” seem harmless. But in an age where workplace stress and burnout are at an all-time high, it’s something that can stretch your headspace to the limit.

“Having too many tasks or emails that are unresolved is something we call ‘open loops,’” explains Karen Meager, co-founder of career coaching consultancy Monkey Puzzle Training. “They’re thought streams that you start but don’t close off. They stay open in your mind, draining your energy and concentration. This can have a huge effect on wellbeing.”

As therapist coach Carolyn Mumby points out, these open loops means “the thought of responding nags away at us before we have given an email or message the time it takes to think about it and construct a reply”.

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Technology designed to help the problem often makes it worse. “We live in a world where you can communicate through so many different channels,” says Alice Weightman, founder of freelance platform The Work Crowd. “It adds to the pressure of being bombarded.”

Email tool Spike is one in a number of solutions that have sprung up in recent years, to try and simplify the way that we communicate.

“The amount of time we spend on email is insane and stressful,” says Dvir Ben-Aroya, CEO and co-founder of Spike. “Part of the problem is that we spend so much time trying to control it. It’s become this huge and draining task, rather than an easy, everyday way of communicating, like talking.”

Fight-or-flight mode

A woman at work
Multitasking chips away at finite head space

One of the issues the team at Spike tackles is the sheer level of messages that confront us – each minute of every day.

“For many people, checking our email may stress us out because each message represents another task. It demands your time, and another decision you have to make,” Sivan Kaspi, Spike’s head of marketing, explains.

“Email is in essence, a compilation of your tasks. So seeing tens, hundreds or thousands of unread messages translates to this huge mountain of tasks. It’s a real trigger to feeling stressed and overloaded.”

This scenario sparks a coping mechanism whereby we try and respond to messages on the go, as we tackle other tasks. But, as science clearly shows, this response only creates more stress.

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“Attempting to multitask throws many of us into fight-or-flight mode,” says Hilda Burke, psychotherapist, couples counsellor and author of The Phone Addiction Workbook.

“Faced with an avalanche of work emails, news alerts, and personal chat streams, we’re constantly deciding which to leave and which to tackle, all of which takes a toll, increasing the level of the stress hormone cortisol in our bodies.”

This puts people into “surviving rather than thriving mode,” says Carolyn. “In surviving mode, we are more likely to be irritable, reactive, worried, anxious, impatient and defensive.”

An undercurrent of stress

Railway clock
The pressure is on to be available 24-7

The fact that we can get email anytime on smartphones doesn’t help the situation, either.

“People feel under pressure to be available 24/7,” says Chloe Brotheridge, hypnotherapist and coach at Calmer You. “Most people sleep next to their phones and check them last thing at night and first thing in the morning.

“We compulsively check our phones, and I’ve heard clients say that checking with work emails in the evenings or at the weekend can spoil their evening or day.”

Communicating between multiple channels creates added confusion, as your attention fractures across different apps. There’s a constant sense that you should reply to colleagues or clients cross-platform, with the result that you lose focus. 

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“It’s like having many phone lines open with people shouting at you on each one at the same time,” says Karen. “It’s extremely stressful and creates more unconscious pressure on people to respond quickly.

“Often organisations are also inconsistent about what channels are for what purpose, so people are trying to guess at where they should be paying attention.”

“Switching between apps can cause a lot of stress,” agrees Sivan. “Managing multiple apps also requires you to remember which platform was used.

“This can be especially stressful for freelancers and small business owners, when different clients may use different platforms to communicate. Was the screenshot or invoice sent on WhatsApp? Slack? Email? Which email thread? What was the subject line?”

The demise of relaxation

When we're overloaded, it's hard to think creatively

The impact of this isn’t just a daily stressor, either. It’s cumulative: a nuisance that builds up over time to the extent that we become too wired to operate properly.

“I believe we’ve forgotten how to relax,” says Karin Peeters, a coach and psychotherapist, and the founder of Inner Pilgrim. “Scrolling through our phone is draining, not replenishing. We know this, yet the addictive pull is so strong. It’s become a habit.

“Clients tell me about a restlessness, hidden underneath the distractions. This subtle, anxious feeling means they’re worried about what might surface when they stop and pause.”

Many people will be familiar with the low-level tension that Karin describes. As well as affecting our ability to relax, it also impairs creative thinking. Anxiety means our minds cannot loosen up enough to reach that state of flow that is so crucial to big ideas.

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“Messaging overload means that it can be difficult to find focused time at work where you can concentrate on something that needs deeper thinking or creativity,” says Corinne Mills, managing director of Personal Career Management.

“Workplaces tend to be fairly hyperactive with non-stop emails, open-plan offices, constant interruptions and meetings, We are constantly being distracted and that means things take longer to achieve than they should and our frustration grows.”

These diversions “can make it hard to do any deep work”, Chloe adds. “I hear clients tell me all the time of anxiety and procrastination that happens because they are overwhelmed with emails, social media and other distractions.” 

In search of better balance

Work-life balance
Finding balance is the key to combating email fatigue

Spike’s research shows that 77% of people still prefer using email versus messaging apps for work. And since different companies use different tools, it will always be the one common platform that people use to communicate, too.

They argue that the answer to email fatigue is to close off the addictive pull and distraction of other apps and instead focus all workspace communication back in email. At the same time, their developers have worked to update this age-old platform to make it a more fun and instinctive tool to use.

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“Email shouldn’t be this thing you have to go into battle with everyday; it should work for you,” says Dvir. “Our mission is simple: to remove the stress of email entirely and make it something you enjoy doing. We can’t reduce your workload, but we can make it far easier to deal with on a day-to-day basis.”

Reclaiming the way you communicate can reduce the risk of email fatigue, meaning you’re more likely to hit that point of equilibrium that is so crucial to wellbeing.

“The brain, like the rest of our body, if overworked can have fatigue which leads to stress, reduced productivity and even depression,” says Alice. “The need to always be online can be addictive and sometimes competitive. Finding the right balance that is right for you is key.” 

Refocusing on what you love

Re-find the projects that bring you meaning

When you find balance, it’s also possible to more closely identify with what drives you again. In part this is because you are able to give your work the attention it deserves.

Hilda calls this “mono tasking” and says it’s becoming scarce. “The opportunities for us to multitask are greater than they ever have been,” she says. “It’s rare to see anyone focusing on just one thing, aka ‘mono tasking’ any more.”

“Studies have shown that it can take around 23 minutes for us to get back on track with a task that requires thought after being interrupted,” adds Carolyn.

“Whilst people may learn to work more quickly, and can sometimes enjoy the sense of keeping lots of balls in the air, in reality they tend to be able to think less deeply and effectively when constantly interrupted”.

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Pushing back on distractions also means you are able to better connect with what is meaningful to you once again.

“When you’re dealing with stress at work, it helps to recall what you loved to do but stopped doing along the way,” says Karin. “When we remind ourselves of what truly matters to us in life, it’s easier to realise when we are heading in a different direction.”

Again this often comes down to time; the one ingredient that appears in short supply when you’re suffering from email fatigue.

“Email isn’t broken but the way we use it is,” says Sivan. “In making the whole process more efficient – by wasting less time and being more focused – you have more time to spend on the things you truly love to do.”

4 ways to reclaim your emails for a happier work-life

A woman on email
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Cut down the clutter

A clean inbox equals a clear mind. Inbox zero isn’t a good goal in itself, but getting through your tasks is. To help do this, bulk delete your conversations where you can and cut out meaningless clutter such as signatures, headers and bulky attachments.

Manage your messages in one place

As tempting as they can be, it’s stressful to manage multiple apps. To avoid distraction and the difficulty of having information on different platforms and tabs, try focusing your workplace communication all in one place.

Prioritise urgent messages

We tend to answer messages on a first-come, first-served basis. But it’s far more effective to divide and rule. Use your email to auto-prioritise urgent messages and filter off those that can be dealt with when you have the time. You may even choose to pin your most important tasks to the top of your inbox.

Reply whenever works for you

Unlike other forms of messaging, there’s no expectation to respond immediately on email – so make the most of this. Some people hate messaging in the evenings, while others feel stressed out by the idea that they can’t do exactly that. Resist the tyranny of instant communication, and instead reply as and when works for you. Remember, you can always write replies at one point and schedule them to be delivered later, too, meaning you can closely control time and workflow associated with email to suit your needs. 

Images: Getty

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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for stylist.co.uk. Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.

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