Email overload affecting wellbeing and productivity, says Cooper

Email overload and poor line management are negatively affecting the UK workforce's wellbeing and productivity

The UK workforce is drowning in email, which is negatively affecting the nation’s productivity according to Cary Cooper, 50th anniversary professor of organizational psychology and health at Manchester Business School.

Cooper, who was ranked the Most Influential Thinker in the 2015 HR Most Influential rankings, was giving the opening keynote at the CIPD Annual Conference in Manchester.

“Email is a big issue for us in terms of overload,” he said. “We better watch it. We use IT more than ever. [The UK’s productivity problem] is not about not having the equipment, it’s about how we manage people.”

He called email overload the biggest cause of “productivity damage” for the UK workforce and urged HR professionals to “get in touch” with the issue.

Cooper cited statistics recently found in HR magazine and IBM research on how HR professionals spend their working time. The Reclaim Your Time survey, which will be published in an exclusive ebook next week, found that 34% of respondents checked their emails every day on waking up, and 38% checked emails every night at home.

Half (50%) of respondents stated their productivity increased with more face-to-face communication and 46% said that while email is useful it takes time away from more valuable tasks.

As well as email overload negatively impacting the UK’s productivity levels, which languish at the bottom of the G7 group of countries, Cooper said poor people management and badly selected and trained line managers also contribute to the problem.

“We have an issue with how we manage human beings,” he said. “We don’t have the right kind of manager. We haven’t selected or trained the right kind of line manager. We need more socially skilled leaders. Most people aren't told when they do a good job at work. The line manager role is a fundamental one.”

When asked what the most important skills for line managers today are, Cooper chose emotional intelligence, empathy and compassion, and interpersonal social skills. He said such skills are more important now than before the recession, as the rise of contingent workforces and job insecurity means people are more worried about losing work than before, leading to damaging levels of presenteeism.

On the importance of taking wellbeing seriously, Cooper cited research findings that people in the top 20% in terms of good psychological wellbeing are “significantly more productive” than people at the bottom end.

“This is not a soft and fuzzy area; it’s a proper area,” he said. “It’s about good line management, not working long hours, and making work fun. We spend more of our waking hours at work than with our families. Why shouldn’t work be fun?”

Download The HR magazine Reclaim Your Time ebook, in association with IBM. It includes the findings of our exclusive research and a column and video interview with Cary Cooper.