Why poor email management may make conscientious workers miserable

Business owner using a computer

Dealing with a deluge of emails? It may well be that as the emails pile up you are becoming increasingly unhappy and less effective.

Recent research from Kingston Business School examined how certain personality traits can influence people’s management of emails in the workplace, focusing on conscientious individuals.

Kingston Well-being at Work Research Group head Dr Emma Russell, along with Stephen Woods and Adrian Banks from the University of Surrey, analysed the impact of email management strategies on wellbeing and accomplishments in the workplace.

When it comes to email management, Russell noted that the manner in which individuals respond to emails “depends upon our other work tasks and email culture, but is also influenced by our personalities and who we are”.

The team’s findings were compiled from the results of an experience sampling diary study, with 54 individuals rating their email responses over the course of half a working day. The total number of emails examined in the study totalled 376 emails.

The study showed more conscientious individuals were likely to take longer responding to an email, which in turn had a negative effect on their wellbeing.

Russell explained that the researchers “thought conscientious people, who ignored email interruptions, would at least feel they were getting their work done more effectively”, predicting they would report higher task goal achievement, even if they experienced a reduction in sense of wellbeing. The findings, however, refuted this assumption.

Participants reported that avoiding notifications didn’t have any positive effect on their perceived task achievement.

Conscientious people found themselves faced with an “activation-resistance quandary”. While an incoming email activates their desire to check it to address new work priorities and respond to colleagues, the desire needs to be resisted if they want to stay on track and avoid being distracted.

“We don’t often stand back and look at how we work and assess whether this is assisting us to reach our goals,” Russell commented.

“We have to wonder — are our email strategies helping us feel good about ourselves? Are they causing us stress? Is there anything we can do differently?”

According to the researchers, workers with a higher level of conscientiousness may consider switching off email notifications altogether. Checking in occasionally when convenient could in turn limit the activation-resistance quandary.

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