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Break from email is good for health

15th May 2012

Researchers in the United States say that taking a break from work email could be good for people's health, as it reduces stress levels and also enables them to concentrate better.

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A study carried out by a team from the University of California's Irvine campus and the US military studied the responses of a team of office-based workers who were cut off from their office email for five days.

They found that the group had more natural and variable heart rates, and were less likely to flip back and forth between different windows on their computer during that time.

Informatics professor and study co-author Gloria Mark said the team was surprised at the results, because they had believed there was a possibility that being cut off from office email could cause stress in employees. However, the group studied became "significantly less stressed," she said.

The study authors said their findings could encourage offices to implement email vacations by controlling log-in times, batching messages or other strategies, a move which could boost productivity in the workplace.

Speaking at a meeting of the Association for Computing Machinery, in Austin, Texas, Marks and colleagues detailed how they recruited 13 civilian employees at the Army's Natick Soldier Systems Centre near Boston to take part in a three-day baseline data-collection phase, including interviews about their existing multitasking and email usage, and a five-day no-email period.

The participants were drawn from diverse office-based careers including chemical engineer, psychologist, materials scientist, biologist, food technologist and research administrator. They included roughly equal numbers of men and women.

They found that a control group of employees who had no email holiday switched screens an average of 37 times per hour compared with 18 times per hour for the vacation group.

Physiologically they remained in steady state of high alert, with more constant heart rates. The vacation group, by contrast, was found to have far more natural, variable heart rates.

They also said they felt better able to do their jobs because they had to deal with fewer time-wasting interruptions, which they found stressful.

According to David Ballard, head of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Programme, the study got to the heart of issues around workplace multitasking and whether or not employees in any line of work were really focused on their core task.

He said the study had highlighted the importance of people "not trying to do so many things at one time and being present at what they do".

Some US employers have considered email blackout periods to benefit employees, but Ballard said the approach would not necessarily suit everyone because people like to work in different ways, so flexibility would have to be built in.

He said previous research had shown that employees felt happier when they were in control, and a lack of control affected stress levels, and therefore also performance.

While research presented at scientific conferences is considered preliminary and has not been peer-reviewed, Marks defended the study, in spite of the small number of participants.

She said the only negative impacts on the group that took a break from office email was a slight sense of isolation, although they could get some necessary information face-to-face from colleagues.

Mark said she would focus next on how digital technology affects face-to-face interactions, especially among the younger generation.


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Comments

Stephen Voida

Wednesday 16th May 2012 @ 17:27

As one of the co-authors of this research, I'd like to correct an minor inaccuracy in this article: Presentation opportunities at computer science conferences are awarded only after the research has been rigorously peer-reviewed, particularly for top-tier conferences such as this one. Our study was thoroughly reviewed and our publication is considered to be final.


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