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Study: Detaching from work email lowers stress, increases focus

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By Leigh Goessl     May 7, 2012 in Health
A new study suggests that cutting back on email time lowers stress on the job. Researchers examined the issue and found that people who are frequently on their email during the course of the day experienced increased heart rates and were less focused.
According to UCIrvine Today, a new study was conducted by University of California Irvine (UCI) and U.S. Army researchers. The study was funded by the U.S. Army and the National Science Foundation.
As a part of the analysis, the research team examined 13 computer-dependent civilian employees working at the Army's Natick Soldier Systems Center near Boston, Mass. The group of participants was small because the researchers reportedly had difficulty recruiting individuals to take part in the research.
To conduct the study, heart rate monitors were applied to the participants and software sensors were connected to track how often the workers switched screens.
Researchers uncovered that those participants constantly on email "changed screens twice as often" and remained in a "high alert" state of mind. There were distinct differences in heart rates between being on email and access being removed. The experiment also analyzed a group of workers without email for five days and tracked the behavior of the participants during this time frame.
When cut off from email, it was discovered the individuals experienced a higher degree of relaxation and were more focused on tasks. Additionally, people disconnected from email engaged in more in-person interaction, increasing personal contact with others.
“We found that when you remove email from workers’ lives, they multitask less and experience less stress,” said UCI informatics professor Gloria Mark, a co-author of the study, “A Pace Not Dictated by Electrons." Mark worked on this study with co-authors UCI assistant project scientist Stephen Voida and Army senior research scientist Armand Cardello.
Additionally, researchers found email users changed screens 37 times an hour on average; those without email switched windows 18 times during an hour's time.
With email used as a primary function at work, and with mobile increasing this connectivity, the notion of living on email being stressful and interfering with productivity probably isn't surprising to many. "Email overload" is a common issue in work environments. While taking email breaks is a clear benefit to the employee, the advantage to the employer would be higher levels of efficiency and output.
There was reportedly one downside, reported the New York Times. People felt "isolated" when they were completely cut off from email for extended periods of time. Although, perhaps there is some middle ground.
“The fact that we found that people are less stressed when they don’t have email shows that there are ways to change the way we use email in the work setting,” explained Mark, who has been studying the effects of email in the workplace since 2004. “We suggest doing what we call batching emails, where organizations send emails once or twice a day, rather than continually, so employees know not to check their email every 10 minutes.”
Mark feels that "email vacations" may be a good idea in the workplace and noted more experimenting should be done in this area.
The Atlantic questions the long-term effectiveness of disconnecting, noting the small group participation and unwillingness for a larger scale of participation. "There's something, though, that may in the long run prove even more stressful than being on email: being away from it."
CIO reported an Army spokesman said the Army's involvement in this is because this branch of Service is considering the addition of smartphones and such applications as email for soldiers on battlefields.
"This data may very well prove helpful," he said.
The researchers will present their findings in their report, entitled A Pace Not Dictated by Electrons: An Empirical Study of Work Without Email, today at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Computer-Human Interaction Conference, located in Austin, Texas.
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