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How Email Is Ruining Your Health

It's not just you and it's not just in your head. British scientists have measured the impact of email on stress levels and it's not good.

You know that buzzing, stressed out feeling you get when you look at your overflowing inbox of hear the ping of an arriving message?

Well, turns out that reaction is real and it isn’t just mental; it’s physical too.

A team of researchers out of Loughborough University in the UK used a set of 30 government employees as guinea pigs to determine the physical as well as psychological effects of email. To do so they tracked the blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol (a hormone related to stress) levels of the syudy participants, who were also asked to keep a diary of their work days. What they found probably won’t surprise you.

Though a single email was no more stressful than receiving a phone call, the amount of email that came at the study subjects throughout the day meant that email ended up being far more stressful than other means of communication. Dealing with all those messages raised cortisol levels as well as increasing blood pressure and heart rate -- all signs of elevated stress. If you need reminding, physical stress like this can lead to a parade of nasty conditions like heart troubles and high blood pressure over the long-term.

That email is stressing you out may be scary but satisfying as scientific confirmation of your intuitions. However, perhaps the more useful aspects of the study were finer grain details about exactly what sort of email is the most stressful. Email messages that contain timely information weren’t stressful, nor were those that acknowledged or expressed gratification for completed work. The kind of emails that did cause stress levels to spike interrupted tasks in progress or were irrelevant to the receipient.

Again, that’s not super surprising. But the conclusion for Professor Tom Jackson who worked on the study is the problem isn’t inherent in the medium. In other words, email isn’t really the issue.The problem is how we use email.

"Over the years email has been the focus of many research studies and is sometimes portrayed as a bad communication medium," Jackson says, but "email is no worse than any other media. Multitasking email alongside other communication media, such as phone and face-to-face meetings, increases the risk of becoming stressed." Multitasking, then, is the true enemy.

This bad news for multitasking comes on top of earlier studies that show constant interruptions not only make you physically stressed, they also make you stupider. So what’s to be done? Doctors have recommended a simple technique called set shifting (basically consciously choosing to focus your task on one task and then another), while short "email vacations" have been shown to lower the physical signs of stress in your body.

Last updated: Jun 10, 2013


Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London 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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