Is your email becoming a burden? Leaders suggest norms, researcher studies solutions

November 21, 2022  //  FOUND IN: Strategy & Leadership,

Approximately a 5-minute read.

Key takeaways:

  • Wellness Office Faculty Associate Anita Amin, M.D. researched email’s impact on workplace stress and recommended a multi-level approach at the institutional, department and individual levels.
  • Marschall Runge, M.D., Ph.D., suggested top leaders support three email norms and cascade the practices to team members to help reduce emails across the organization.
  • Department suggestions include setting team expectations and other channels for communications, while individual tips suggest Microsoft tools to unclutter inboxes.

After engagement survey results showed that employees strongly agreed with the statement that “email contributes to my feelings of burnout or stress,” Health Information Technology & Services conducted a mid-year review of emails and found that 1.9 million emails are sent each day across the institution.

Working with the Wellness Office as a faculty associate, Anita Amin, M.D., conducted further research to explore solutions to address this concern among faculty, staff and learners.

According to the survey data, 66% of clinical sciences faculty and 48% of basic sciences faculty believed email contributed to feelings of stress and burnout.

“It’s clear that many consider email as an administrative burden. A deep dive into ‘email fatigue’ and potential solutions can help foster well-being broadly,” said Amin.

Her best tips all focus on optimizing how leaders, faculty, staff and learners utilize email at all levels.

“I think the best approach is a multifactorial one,” explained Amin. “We need to consider this from institutional, departmental and individual levels.”

Organization leaders support email norms 

When Amin shared her research with Chief Executive Officer Marschall Runge, M.D., Ph.D.’s Time + Stress Management Task Force, she suggested that email norms recommended at the institutional level could go a long way to role model more effective email usage and help reduce excessive email burden for all faculty, staff and learners.

Runge shared this story about how a simple out-of-office message could have a big impact on email burden:

“Recently I went to a conference and decided to put an out-of-office message on my computer that kindly stated I would not be able to respond to emails in a timely fashion. I provided a contact who could respond to any immediate concerns and asked that they hold any non-urgent requests until my return. Usually, I receive hundreds of emails when I return, causing me to regret having left at all. This time I had only 28!”

To inspire faculty chairs to do the same, Runge recommended the following email norms be supported by leaders, with the hopes of having a rippling effect on the organization.

Institutional email norms:

  • When you are away, use out of office email messages that inform and direct senders to those who can respond to work-related issues in your absence and request to have less urgent requests wait until your return.
  • Consider using this procedure not only for long periods of time away from the office, but for opportunities to catch up on work, professional development, or wellness breaks.
  • Since we work within a 24/7 health system operation, it may be difficult to avoid sending emails to team members which will arrive beyond traditional working hours. As leaders, make it clear you do not expect responses back from team members after their planned work hours. A message could include a note which states, “my working hours may not be yours and do not respond until your normal working hours.”  

Setting email expectations within teams

At the departmental level, Amin’s biggest suggestion is setting expectations for email usage.

“Some things we can do at a department level is to reduce redundant emails and create a culture that promotes unplugging from work outside of working hours,” said Amin. “Oftentimes people use their time off work to catch up on emails, contributing to burnout.”

To combat catching up on emails outside of work hours, Amin suggests a dedicated “email time” allowing employees to get protected time every week to catch up on emails or other administrative tasks.

“I have heard feedback from staff that often when faculty are sending emails during off-hours or the weekend, they feel there is pressure to check and respond to email during this time,” said Amin. “Clear expectations set on the divisional/departmental levels would help reduce the burden on staff.”

Amin’s other suggestions for departmental changes to reduce emails includes the following:

  • Create a calendar of all department meetings with links to topics/speakers instead of sending reminder emails
  • Have once weekly update emails instead of multiple weekly emails
  • Clear expectations about email responses/etiquette
  • Using email signatures
  • Avoiding sending emails outside of work hours
  • If you must write emails outside work hours, use the “delay send” function so that the messages are only delivered during work hours.
  • Using proper communication methods to disseminate information
  • Use shared documents for collaborative work

To consider other methods to communicate to avoid email overload, use this Communication Channel Use & Norm Chart,  or you can use this template to develop your own team norms.

Taking control of individual inboxes

On an individual level, Amin’s recommendations aim to reduce clutter in inboxes and cut down on unnecessary content.

“Organizing your inbox using tools within Outlook is key, along with keeping the contents of your emails concise,” Amin said.

These steps make it easier to navigate your inbox without getting overwhelmed and cut down on the time it takes to catch up on past emails. Additional tips include avoiding the “reply all” function unless necessary and recognizing when topics would be better discussed in other settings (e.g., over the phone or in person). 

Consider these additional tips to clarify email expectations:

  • Use the subject line to explain when a response is needed
  • Schedule calendar time to read and respond to email
  • Add language to signature line or out of office message such as:
    • “I check email twice a day between xx and xx.”
    • “I do not respond to emails on weekends. In an emergency, please call my mobile.”
    • “To reduce email burden, I strive to be succinct in my communications and may not respond to your email unless it requires an answer. I respectfully acknowledge your busy schedule and send my appreciation for your response and/or assistance.” 

These email guidelines are also helpful in reducing inbox clutter. 

More to come…

Amin will continue working on her research into 2023, with the goal of sharing her entire findings toward the end of next summer. Amin hopes that by completing her research and working to implement some of these suggestions, faculty, staff and learners can all benefit from reduced email burden.

“I think this is an area that affects so many people and one that, if we make a dedicated effort to improve, has the potential to help on a large scale.”