· 2 min read · Features

BlackBerry crumble reveals the depth of our email addiction

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During the recent BlackBerry outage reports flooded in of staff that were stressed and angry by the lack of email, and felt unable to work. These are the classic withdrawal symptoms of an addict.

The constant checking to see if the BlackBerry system was back up exacerbated the situation and just made users even more twitchy.

For many the response was to switch to an alternative media eg iphone or android smart phone. Sadly that is not the answer. The BlackBerry outage has served to highlight just how addicted and dependent we have become on our constant email fix. Email addiction contributes substantially to what has become the hidden disease of 21st Centaury working life, 'email overload' and all the attendant ailments such as loss of productivity, stress and an unbalanced work-life balance.

More than 60% of the business users we surveyed felt that they must stay tethered 24x7x365 to their BlackBerry or similar device (even on Christmas day, driving and in the bedroom). When asked why, most confess that it is self-imposed, rather than their boss's (and client's) expectation.

The BlackBerry outage has presented HR with a golden opportunity to tackle the email addiction before it eats into the wellbeing of our workforce at all levels from those at the coal face to those who run the business. All the research on stress demonstrates unequivocally that we need to take a proper break from work to refresh and recharge the batteries. Furthermore, the constant checking of emails not only when at ones desk but also in meetings raises a major concern for HR and top executives about the impact of these constant distractions on our ability to think strategically and concentrate.

Research from the US has demonstrated that multi-tasking lowers productivity. Meanwhile distractions from new emails are estimated to add about 15 minutes to the time to complete the original task in hand. Little wonder employers are concerned about the competence of the Millennia Generation of employees who seem unable to stop multi-tasking (for example checking their phones for new alerts and texting whilst simultaneously eating and talking).

The BlackBerry crumble episode meant that for a very very brief period, people attended meetings and stayed focused, talked to work colleagues and friends and partners without being distracted and in some cases found alternatives ways of working often as if not more effective. How can one build on this brief interlude to help those suffering with email addiction to continue to dry out and return to more sensible ways of working?

The key lies in the principles of 'Mindfulness'. Clear your mind of unnecessary clutter (ie emails distractions) and focus on the task in-hand, be that a meeting, writing a proposal, talking to someone etc. Here is a seven point starting plan to initiate the process.

  • Switch off all the new email notifications and close/minimise your email programme when at the desk. When out put away your mobile device and use any down time for thinking.
  • Give people an incentive to come and talk to you instead of emailing.
  • Tell people you will no longer have your email always open and ask them to call/talk to you if it's really urgent.
  • Limit the number of times you access your inbox (eg once every 45 minutes).
  • Fine yourself if you log-in between the set times (and make it painful).
  • Celebrate and reward yourself when you reach the target time with no in-between glimpses.
  • If you feel you must check your emails on holiday then either do it once either in the evening or towards the end of the vacation.

Email addiction is a serious problem. Unlike substance addiction there is no medical help and it is still not well understood. The main sources of treatment are to change behaviour and draw on the work on treating internet addiction. This may mean seeking counselling. But left untreated the constant checking for new email can have serious consequence not just for individual's wellbeing but also the business as responses are fired off to quickly without being thought through.

Monica Seeley (pictured) is an international expert on email management at the Mesmo Consultancy. She is a visiting fellow at Cass Business School, City University and her third book 'Brilliant Email' was published by Pearson in 2011.