Taking the unplug challenge

How much email is too much?

Geraldine Ly
2018 May

At the onset of a recent Spring Break trip to Miami with my family, I made a personal vow that I would limit myself to checking emails only once a day at night for one hour. I failed, but not miserably; for the most part, I checked and responded to emails early in the morning and late at night with an occasional response during the day. However, in setting this limitation and trying to stick as close to it as possible, I was able to enjoy a lot more family time than during past vacations.

For the last 10 years since purchasing my iPhone, Mac Book Pro, and iPad, and having free Wi-Fi connections at every hotel and vacation rental, I have not had a true vacation. Instead, my vacation “offices” have had a better view: the tropical shores of Hawaii, the turquoise beaches in Miami, the frenetic streets of Manhattan, the glaciers of Tracy Arm Fjord in Alaska. Technology and the continual advancement of easier, speedier access has allowed all of us to field work emails late into the night and first thing in the morning and throughout the day when we hear the notification sounds indicating that “you’ve got mail.” The work-life balance is beyond blurred; it is blended.

Studies show that taking time off from work lowers levels of fatigue and job burnout. The University of British Columbia found that people who frequently checked emails throughout the day experienced higher levels of stress and tension as they constantly shifted their attention between tasks and rearranged priorities, and cannot fully relax or rejuvenate based on the constant attachment to work. Employees who come back rested tend to perform better at solving problems and other creative tasks. Such policies are also a recruitment tool and encourage retention. European companies have been leaders in restricting email use outside of work hours. A new French law requires companies with 50 or more employees to devise a policy that prevents office emails from encroaching on leisure time. That law stemmed from a study about an “info-obesity” affliction that detailed health effects stemming from chronic reliance on technology. Criticisms of completely prohibiting emails during off-hours include the inability to contact clients in other time zones, and flexibility in working nights or weekends so employees have some freedom during the week.

“Edicts alone won’t solve the problem of overwork,” says Ellen Ernst Kossek, a professor at the Purdue University Krannert School of Management. Her research shows that people want to work at different times and in different ways depending on their habits and personal lives. Her recommendation is to teach people to have healthy email habits and behaviors and decide what is a reasonable response time; sending an email in the middle of the night is not reasonable.

Many of you have set an automatic “out-of-the-office” response to emails that are sent to you while you are on vacation. Does that cause further angst, or “FOMO”? The Fear of Missing Out generally affects social media junkies who need to stay in the know of what others are doing throughout the day, into the night, and as soon as their eyes open. Email FOMO occurs when you worry about what might be happening in your inbox when you’re not checking. The fear is real because U.S. workers spend an average of 6.3 hours in their email per day. Multiply that by five working days, which nets an average of 31 hours of emailing a week! No wonder Captain Jean Luc Picard was told by Locutus of Borg, “resistance is futile.”

Academics and clinicians offer suggestions to email FOMO: set the automatic reply that you are not available to check emails until you return (and don’t check them); set the automatic reply that you will have limited access to your emails and review only those that require immediate assistance; assign someone to address your emails; read emails and don’t respond, but mark the ones requiring a response when you return as “unread”; commit to a specific time of day and time period to address work-related issues; turn off notifications.

My inbox collects over 100+ new work-related emails a day. If I don’t clear them daily, the end of the week is daunting and overwhelming. While I was unable to fully comply with the promise to myself, the limitations I had set put me more at ease while on vacation. And guess what? My office didn’t burn down, I didn’t lose a client for failing to respond instantly, and my family told me that this was the most relaxed they had seen me in years. Can you take the unplug challenge?

Geraldine Ly Geraldine Ly

Geraldine Ly, the new president of OCTLA, practices at the Law Offices of Geraldine Ly in Santa Ana.  Her practice emphasizes workers’ compensation and personal injury law. She frequently handles cases that have an overlap between workers’ comp and personal injury law.

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