Email ‘vacations’ decrease stress, increase concentration

Being cut off from work email significantly reduces stress and allows employees to focus better, according to a study by University of California, Irvine and US Army researchers.

“We found that when you remove email from workers’ lives, they multitask less and experience less stress,”Gloria Mark, PhD, a professor in the department of informatics at UCI, said in a press release. She co-authored the study, “A Pace Not Dictated by Electrons,” with Stephen Voida, PhD, assistant project scientist and Army senior research scientist Armand Cardello, PhD.

Researchers attached heart rate monitors to computer users in a suburban office setting, while software sensors detected how often they switched windows. People who read email changed screens twice as often and were in a steady “high alert” state, with more constant heart rates. Those removed from email for 5 days experienced more natural, variable heart rates.

Previous research has suggested that people with steady “high alert” heart rates have more cortisol, a hormone linked to stress. Stress on the job, in turn, has been linked to a variety of health problems.

Participants were computer-dependent civilian employees at the Army’s Natick Soldier Systems Center outside Boston. Those with no email reported feeling better able to do their jobs and stay on task, with fewer stressful and time-wasting interruptions.

Measurements bore that out, according to Mark. People with email switched windows an average of 37 times per hour. Those without changed screens half as often — about 18 times in an hour.

She said the findings could be useful for boosting productivity and suggested that controlling email login times, batching messages or other strategies might be helpful. “Email vacations on the job may be a good idea,” she said in the release.

Mark said it was hard to recruit volunteers for the study, but “participants loved being without email, especially if their manager said it was OK. In general, they were much happier to interact in person.” Getting up and walking to someone’s desk offered a physical respite from long periods of sitting.

Study subjects worked in a variety of positions and were evenly split between women and men. Individuals without email reported feeling somewhat isolated, but they were able to obtain critical information from colleagues who did have email.

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