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Daily Trick to Kill Stress, Improve Health

Forget two weeks on a tropical island: Try to just shut off this one program on your computer, for a remarkable change of heart rate and stress hormones.

Pretty much all of us would love to pack our bags and jet off to beach or a cabin somewhere for a couple of weeks this summer to shut out the pressures of owning a business. If that's not on the cards for scheduling or budgetary reasons, don't despair. A new study says you can make a measurable dent in your stress levels with a much less time-consuming and costly intervention.

What is it? Simply switching off your access to email. Researchers from the University of California-Irvine and the U.S. Army recently wired up suburban office workers to gadgets that monitored both how often they switched between windows on their computers and their heart rates. For part of the study the workers were monitored as they went about their routines, checking and sending email normally. Then the researchers asked the participants to take an "email vacation" and quit their inboxes.

The results didn't simply show up in the company's server logs as a decline in the number of emails sent. They were also clearly visible in the bodies of the study participants. When given constant access to email the workers exhibited a steady, high heart rate as if they were always on alert. Such elevated heart rates have been linked to higher levels of the hormone cortisol and a number of health problems. When the participants quit using email, their heart rates returned to a more natural and variable pattern, going up when confronted with something stressful but returning to a more relaxed pace when the situation had passed. They also switched windows much less—from 37 times per hour with email to 18 times without.

After five days off email the research team asked the participants for their subjective feelings following their break from their inboxes. The workers reported feeling more in control and more productive, though also a bit more isolated. "Participants loved being without email, especially if their manager said it was OK. In general, they were much happier to interact in person," said Gloria Mack, the UCI informatics professor who led the study.

With earlier research showing that 70 percent of emails to knowledge workers are attended to within a mere six seconds or their arrival, it's no surprise that getting off the email treadmill has such a marked impact on workers' state of mind and physical well being. So while getting rid of email entirely may be unfeasible for most entrepreneurs, this research suggests an occasional break may be achievable and have significant benefits. "Most discovered just how unnecessary email was," Mack told the Los Angeles Times of the participants in her study, though she conceded that sometimes email is essential.

So if you can't manage a week away anytime soon, could you at least consider giving yourself a day off email now and again?

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Last updated: May 7, 2012

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in Cyprus with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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