Email Overload at Work? Strengthen Your Self-Control

Topic(s): burnout, performance, personality
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology, 2019
Article: Boxed in by Your Inbox: Implications of Daily E-mail Demands for Managers’ Leadership Behaviors
Authors: C.C. Rosen, L.S. Simon, R.S. Gajendran, R.E. Johnson, H.W. Lee, S. Lin
Reviewed by: Mona Bapat, PhD

Research on the effects of email demands at work has confirmed what you have probably known all-along: an excessive amount of time spent on email slows work progress. What the research has not examined, however, is how leaders are impacted by email demands. It also has not examined how leaders’ level of self-control is related to how they balance email and work productivity. Self-control is the ability to block out distractions and short-term impulses and maintain focus on the activity at-hand.

Research of email demands on leaders is important because leaders are central to the flow of information between upper and lower rungs of the organizational ladder. Therefore, email can be more central to their work, while also hindering leadership behaviors. As such, researchers (Rosen et al., 2019) have examined how email demands and leader self-control is related to leadership behavior.


The authors recruited a sample of 48 managers who completed a one-time survey that assessed their level of self-control and how central email is to their jobs. One week later, the managers received daily surveys twice a day for 10 consecutive workdays.

The first daily survey was sent at the end of the morning and asked questions regarding email demands and leaders’ perceptions of their work goal progress up to that point in the day. The second daily survey was sent at the end of the workday and asked participants what leader behaviors they enacted that day. The final sample was comprised of 394 daily observations that the researchers analyzed.


Email Demands, Perceived Work Progress, and Email Centrality

As you may expect, the authors found that the greater the email demands, the perceived work progress tended to be lower. Second, this relationship between email demands and work progress was weaker for leaders who reported that email is more central to their work. That is, for these leaders, email demands did not significantly impact their productivity since a large part of their work involves email anyway.

Email Demands, Perceived Work Progress, and Transformational Leadership

Transformational leadership is motivating employees and helping them to make organizational goals their own, whereas initiating structure focuses mainly on managing immediate work responsibilities.

The researchers found that the higher the email demands, the lower the perception of goal progress, and in turn, the lower the transformational leadership behavior. They found no relationship between email demands, goal progress, and initiating structure.

Perceived Work Progress, Leadership Behavior, and Trait Self-control

The researchers found that for those leaders with higher trait self-control, the relationship between perceived goal progress and transformational behavior was weaker. They also found this with regard to initiating structure behavior.

The authors explain that leaders with high self-control are more easily able to enact behaviors that contribute to both short-term and long-term goals, even in the face of high email demands. In other words, their transformational and initiating structure behaviors are not as negatively impacted by high emails demands compared to leaders with low self-control.


The researchers found that leadership behaviors were more negatively affected by email demands for those with low trait self-control and for those for whom email is less central to their work.

Lastly, the researchers conducted supplementary analyses to determine if the effects could be solely attributed to email demands and not communication demands in general. The other forms of communication they included were face-to-face conversations, texting or instant messaging, and work-related phone calls. Email demands remained a significant predictor of work progress, even after taking these other communication methods into account.


Given the negative impact that email demands can have on leadership behaviors, the authors suggest that organizations set less arduous norms and expectations about email communication. They also suggest that when selecting individuals for leadership roles, interviewers assess applicants’ individual characteristics; they cite research that shows that willpower and interpersonal skills can buffer the effects of competing demands. The authors also recommend training employees to become more resistant to competing demands and improve self-control.

In addition, training specifically focused on time management could help improve the juggling of various work responsibilities.


Rosen, C.C., Simon, L.S., Gajendran, R.S., Johnson, R.E., Lee, H.W. & Lin, S. (2019). Boxed in by your inbox: Implications of daily e-mail demands for managers’ leadership behaviors. Journal of Applied Psychology, 104(1), 19-33.