Take time off from receiving email? Give me a break

Justin Thomas writes about digital detox and the right to switch off from work emails

In 2015, it is estimated that we sent and received 205 billion emails, with the average office worker dealing with 126 emails each day. Chris Ratcliffe / Bloomberg News
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I remember exactly where I was when I first heard of a revolutionary new technology known as email. It took my friend about 10 minutes of explanation before I finally grasped the general idea.

My very first email account was sakeena@hotmail.com. I had learnt the Arabic word sakeena from a Sudanese friend; it means tranquillity. At the time I decided to use it as my email address I had no idea it was also a popular girl’s name in the Arab world. I am the original Hotmail Sakeena. But back then there were no conventions; email was just too new. Relatively speaking, it’s still fairly new and the conventions are not yet set in stone.

Email length varies greatly and the conventions associated with letter writing just don’t apply. Emails can be monosyllabic and typos are tolerated, if not graciously accepted. Researchers interested in this topic generally look to the Enron email corpus for clues about our emerging email culture.

The Enron corpus is the largest publicly available body of corporate email messages in existence, comprising more than half a million messages.

The average message length is about 75 words – so if your emails are routinely much longer than that, then you might be being a bit too long-winded (#justsaying).

We can afford to be brief in our email messages because we are unlimited in terms of the quantity we can send. In 2015, it is estimated that we sent and received 205 billion emails, with the average office worker dealing with 126 emails each day. Technology pundits predict that this number will continue to rise in coming years.

The growth of email and the proliferation of smart devices has meant that work – the office – is never more than a tap, tap, slide or a click away. I occasionally get emails from students and colleagues late in the night or during holiday periods asking for things that they need urgently, as in, yesterday. The implicit expectation is that I check my work email out-of-hours and that I’m never really off the clock.

Email has further blurred the boundaries between work and leisure. The French government recently enacted a law that actually helps clarify these boundaries a little. Popularly known as the “right to disconnect”, the new law requires that companies with more than 50 employees must give workers the right to shut down all communication technologies outside negotiated core hours.

France’s ministry of labour said: “These measures are designed to ensure respect for rest periods and ... balance between work and family and personal life.”

Even with the right to disconnect, many people won’t avail themselves of its protection. One issue is that email – even work email – can be addictive. Many of us will have felt that sense of joy or elation when reading an email containing great news, praise or compliments. As an academic, I’m often on the lookout for email informing me of the status (rejected/accepted) of a proposed research article or grant application. Occasionally, I will receive an email that will cause me to punch the air and scan the horizon for someone to high-five. Like a gambler chasing the big win or an addict chasing that first high, email checking can become relentless.

The right to disconnect, even explicit encouragement to disconnect, won’t work for some people. For this reason, and out of concern for employee well-being, some organisations have resorted to shutting down email servers outside core working hours. This doesn’t mean that emails get lost; it means that they are only delivered to your inbox during business hours – for example an email sent at 5.01pm on a Thursday won’t appear in your inbox until Sunday at 8am. This pan-organisational digital detox seems like a fairly extreme measure, but if it helps some people regain a better sense of balance, it’s worth considering it for a few weeks each year.

Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor at Zayed University

On Twitter: @DrJustinThomas