Email can feel like a force of nature -- a great flood of messages into your inbox which you are powerless to stop and which sucks up incredible portions of your day.

But if you’re the boss, here’s a newsflash from some eye-opening recent research: email isn’t so much a tsunami as it is a virus, and you’re spreading it. 

Like a sick person who comes in to work sneezing, top managers spread the emailing impulse around the office like a bad bug, according to new research from the University of Glasgow and U.K.-based Modeuro Consulting due out in next month’s Harvard Business Review. The analysis shows that bosses set the tone when it comes to email at a company. If they send a lot, they spread the idea to the employees to send a lot and they end up with an overflowing inbox themselves.

The research team took an in-depth look at the email habits of the executives of London-based company International Power and found that while managers felt they received a ton of email they also sent way more than they realized -- 56 messages a day on average for a total of 1.5 hours a day spent on email.

All that sending proved catching. "Before you know it, you’ll spark a ripple, a flurry of emails across the organization," Modeuro founder Andrew Killick, told the WSJ At Work blog about executives’ email habits.

Don’t Panic, There’s a Cure

Facing up to executive complicity in email overload may be require a certain amount of open-mindedness, but taking a hard look at your own email habits pays big dividends, the researchers found. International Power bosses didn’t just get a scolding for their excessive emailing, they also got help reducing the glut -- an effort that cut emails sent by those at the top by 54% and also had impressive organization-wide benefits. When executives cut down, WSJ blog reports:

The company’s 73 other London-based employees began following suit, even though they hadn’t received specific instructions. Their drop in output was 64%. Ultimately, the company gained 10,400 hours annually, freeing them up to work on bigger, more important projects. Killick said most companies could realize 5% to 30% productivity increases if they cut back on email.

Keen to know exactly how they accomplished this feat? Check out the HBR write up for many more details.

Are you setting a bad email example?