Email Overload and the Harmful Effects of Telepressure

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Email overload is something most of us have probably experienced. Too much email can be problematic because we might spend too much time responding to email instead of doing actual work. But researchers have found another problem with technology like email. We feel a tremendous amount of pressure to respond quickly, even when the message may not need a quick response. This pressure can be harmful to employees in many different ways, and undermine the very advantages that email was supposed to provide.

NEW WORD OF THE DAY: TELEPRESSURE

Psychologists come up with all kinds of terms to describe ideas or behavior. Sometimes these ideas are vague and difficult to understand, and at other times we all nod knowingly—we’ve experienced it ourselves. In this article, I-O psychologists (Barber & Santuzzi, 2015) came up with a new idea that we can all definitely relate to. They call it telepressure—which they define as a preoccupation and urge to respond to electronic messages such as email. In other words, it’s bad enough when our inboxes are flooded, but somehow many of us think we have to respond as fast as possible to these messages. This can result in harmful consequences.

To test their new idea, the researchers conducted several studies that measured all sorts of workplace attitudes and behavior. To label a new idea, or what psychologists call a “construct”, the researchers need to show that the new idea is statistically different from other similar ideas. For example, the researchers were able to demonstrate that telepressure is not the same thing as being highly engaged in work or being a workaholic. There is something unique about feeling the urge to respond to email that goes beyond how attached employees are to completing other work tasks.

 

WHAT ARE THE OUTCOMES OF TELEPRESSURE?

With their new idea in tow, the authors investigated what leads to telepressure and what happens when employees experience telepressure. In their first study, the authors found three things that predict telepressure. The first is proscriptive norms, which refers to the message that organizations send to employees regarding the appropriateness of email response time. This was more of a factor in predicting telepressure than actual email response time. The authors explained this by saying that adding a note such as “sorry for the slow response,” onto an email, can communicate the message that emails really should be responded to quickly even when they actually aren’t in practice. This can increase telepressure. The second predictor was techno-overload, which is when employees feel that technology is making employees do more work than they can handle. It’s easy to see how this can lead to pressure associated with email response. The third predictor was public self-conscientiousness. This means that some people feel the need to respond to emails quickly so that they can bolster their public image as a person who is always on top of things.

In a second study, the researchers determined some of the outcomes of too much telepressure. These outcomes include both physical and mental burnout, more health-related absences from work, and worse sleep quality. Telepressure was found to influence these factors beyond the contribution of other work-related stressful factors such as having a highly demanding job.

 

HOW CAN ORGANIZATIONS IMPROVE?

Due to the pervasiveness of email in our society, organizational leaders need to understand the harmful outcomes it may cause. This article is one of the first to clearly identify and describe the specific problems associated with email overload and similar technology. Email is supposed to make work easier, say the authors. Yet, the harmful effects of telepressure may be affecting employees, thus negatively impacting an organization’s bottom line. What can we do about it?

The authors point to instances where HR policy recognizes the potential for email overload and actually bans email during certain times of the week (for example, after work). These companies believe it will actually lead to overall heightened productivity. Short of that, organizational leaders are capable of setting norms regarding email etiquette and response times. For example, if an organization clearly communicates that emails are not the most urgent thing to do, the culture of the organization will eventually reflect that. This will lead to less telepressure and more positive outcomes for employees.