The scourge of email: How companies are shifting policies to improve productivity and mental health

There can be enormous pressure at work to read and respond to emails immediately but more progressive companies have realised this is causing stress and burnout, and are introducing policies to tackle the issue.

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Emails are stressful. Whether you are someone who racks up millions of unread numbers or strive for ‘inbox zero’, the pressure keep on top of incoming communications and maintain a rapid response rate is difficult to ignore.

Awareness around mental health has grown in recent years and increasingly flexible working patterns are being encouraged. However, emails can all too often stunt progressive policy aimed at improving work/life balance.

According to a 2016 report from research company Future Work Centre, the consistent pressure to check emails is one of the most stressful daily activities for employees. That speaks to a wider pressure of always having to be ‘on’; for marketers this can be exacerbated by strained client/agency dynamics and tight deadlines.

One person anonymously told Marketing Week: “I used to work for an advertising agency that expected you to live and breathe agency life, right down to ensuring weekend emails were still answered extensively prior to Monday morning and evenings/holidays were included, too. We were considered uncommitted to the business if we were to switch off, it made me incredibly unsatisfied, depressed and anxious, and happily I left that position.”

The government agency the Health and Safety Executive estimates that around 15.4 million working days are lost every year due to work-related stress or anxiety last year, with 23% of full-time employees admitting to feeling burned out at work all the time.

Diana Tickell, chief executive of Nabs, says 40% of the calls to our Advice Line are from people seeking emotional support a fifth of which relate to work pressures. For many callers “how emails now dominate the work/life balance is a significant issue. It’s ever-present,” she adds.

Tackling the scourge of email

Companies are starting to tackle email pressures and implementing polices to ensure that employees can reclaim a balanced life that extends to their inbox.

John Kimbell, managing partner of media agency Navigate Digital, decided to implement a policy around emails after reviewing the company’s culture in 2018.

“Email was one of those things that increasingly follows people around; they are too
easy to use as a communications tool. Clients start to expect people to respond at all hours and we wanted to make sure that was stopped. It’s unfair for some people to have that pressure on them to be checking it at every hour of the day,” he explains.

The company’s guidelines include four key principles: Do I need to send this email? Do I need to send (or read) this email now? Do I need to ‘reply all’? and Last in, first out. This he says, helps people keep on top of inboxes without adding to stress.

He says: “While we would never say ‘this is how you have to live your life’ we felt that unless we had it in black and white as an official policy people would never believe it.”

The policy includes tips such as turning email notifications off on mobiles and tackling email anxiety by ensuring employees inboxes are empty at the end of the working day. This is to ensure people switch off when they aren’t at work.

Lots of people are still in this mentality that if they get an email from their boss they have to respond. We are trying to educate people and tell them that is not necessarily the case.

Alice Archer, IPG Mediabrands

“We’re trying to encourage people to get stuff organised so they can leave at the end of the day and think, ‘OK, my email is empty, I can turn them off now and decompress. Job done until tomorrow’,” Kimbell explains.

Having such a policy no doubt helps set out what it expected internally. But this doesn’t necessarily help if people externally have different attitudes to email or different working hours.

That is why Alice Archer, head of PR and communications for EMEA at IPG Mediabrands, has a footnote at the bottom of all her emails that states. “At IPG Mediabrands we embrace agile working – so while I’m emailing now, I do not expect a response or action outside of your own working hours.”

“We’re really trying to acknowledge that while we’re working certain hours we never want the people we work with to feel pressured to respond every time they get an email,” she explains.

“It’s a learning curve because lots of people are still in this mentality that if they get an email from their boss they have to respond. We are trying to educate people and tell them that is not necessarily the case.”

This tactic is also being adopted by brands such as Coca-Cola, Britvic, Stonewall and Procter & Gamble, which all have teams that are implementing a footnote about working times. However, it appears brands are reluctant to make progressive email policies company-wide with individual leaders setting the agenda.

Emails as a cornerstone of flexible working

A more flexible attitude to emails is also a cornerstone of ensuring flexible working can be successful. Without empowering people to reply to emails in their own working hours, flexible working is made redundant.

Both Archer and Kimbell’s email policies were part of a wider look at company culture. Archer notes: “We did not see it as a big dramatic policy, we saw it as a development of some of the agile working we’ve put in place.”

Nab’s Tickell adds: “There is no point having someone with shortened hours or working part time but then having other systems in the business that don’t enable them to do so. Otherwise you end up putting pressure back on the place you were trying to take off.”

Tickell favours “boundaries” over hard and fast rules and is is sceptical of rules like ‘Don’t answer after 5pm’.

She explains: “That’s all well and good if you are a nine-to-five employer but the reality is if you are a global business you need to find a way of flexing the working day in order to match the work that is being done.

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“If you’re not careful that stretches into an ‘always on’ scenario rather than off at different times one.”

Tickell adds:  “I think it’s almost impossible in our working environment to completely say we will never answer after a certain time – there will always be emergencies. But it’s about boundaries. It’s about using it when you absolutely have to and not making it the norm.”

Kimbell agrees that there are exceptions. One example of how it got round the problem was to set up a separate email account for one client. “They are a fast food business and are open 24/7 so we need to be available but we’ve set up an email address specifically for that client that we take responsibility for.”

It is worth noting that these progressive policies affect working parents – who are more likely to take advantage of flexible working – the most. When email policy lags behind it is parents who typically bear the brunt.

Nabs’s Trickell explains: “Working parents probably find it the most difficult because they are trying to work in a flexible way.

Leading by example

The success of such email policies is also reliant on managers leading by example. Employees will look to bosses to determine their behaviour, with top down responsibility needed to ensure that guidelines result in a culture change.

Tickell urges people to think more about managing emails in the same way they do other areas of work.

“When you are the lead person, whether that’s the director or client, you have to take responsibility for the communications you generate. It’s very easy for people that are busy to reply when suits them but there needs to be a sense of responsibility about managing their own impact,” she explains.

Kimbell agrees that as a business leader he is more conscious of the impact of his behaviour: “The team is looking to us for guidance. We need to take responsibility for that and not be forwarding people emails at 8pm,” he says.

There are small ways that leaders can make a big difference. When trying to clear their own inbox it is important to think about the impact that has on people receiving messages and try to avoid evenings and weekends so employees don’t feel pressured to check their own emails out of hours.

“I often work in the evening, once I have put the kids to bed, but I’ll let my team know that just because I am emailing that categorically means they do not have to respond,” Archer says.

“I also have an out of office on Tuesday and I have people in my team to pickup my emails. I don’t feel any pressure to respond on my day off as it has been well communicated that people are not expected to work on their days off.”

The intense pressure to reply quickly is not an issue that is going away. And as more comms tools, such as Slack and Whatsapp, are used at work, the pressure to respond is arguably only set to increase. Tools that encourage faster response rates are inevitably going to place pressure on individuals to increase working hours.

Kimbell is clear leaders need to adapt by consistently challenging the way they work. He explains: “A lot of business leaders are older. I am 43 and things are very different to when I first started out.

“Just because my boss told us that this was the way to work then, doesn’t mean it’s appropriate now. You need to find different ways and look at what the new generation of people need because it certainly is not what worked in the ’90s.”

Companies that are slow to implement policies around email risk being viewed as behind the times.

“Those sorts of messages in the media industry are becoming more common. It would stand out quite negatively now if you weren’t adopting those policies,” Archer notes.

There are also bonuses. Kimbell claims he has seen an uptick in productivity as a result.

He explains: “We see now a lot more people getting up and talking to each other things,  internally things are getting done quicker. Generally [the policy] has improved the team within the office.”

For employees who are keen to change their working habits but unsure of how to raise the issue with managers, Tickell advises researching the benefits and examples beforehand and suggesting a trial: “No intelligent, responsible employer is going to reject it if you’ve done a little bit of research.”

She adds: “If people feel pressurised and that their home life is being interrupted, the employer is not going to get the best out of them at all.”

Kimbell notes the huge benefits in in contrast to how easy it was to implement. “People have embraced it and are pleased we’ve introduced it. Everyone seems to feel a lot more comfortable. It has only had a positive impact.”

He urges other companies: “Be brave and try it at least. What’s the worst that can happen? Challenge the way you’re working.”

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