Email addiction: How to kick the toxic inbox habit

Taking no action can exact a heavy toll on the health of the business and its employees...

The tell-tale symptoms: constantly checking your inbox, impatience over sluggish replies, firing off pointless messages rather than simply talking to colleagues. If they sound familiar, you or your business may be suffering from email addiction, says Monica Seeley.

Is email addiction fast becoming the most prevalent ailment to afflict business professionals?

  • Addiction - the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or to something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming, as narcotics, to such an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma. Source:

Many thought social media would help stem the email tsunami that most people experience every day. However, with the volume of emails predicted to rise rather than fall over the next three to five years, more business professionals feel they just cannot switch off.

Curing email addiction requires a well-thought-out programme to which everyone is committed

Curing email addiction requires a well-thought-out programme to which everyone is committedPhoto: Shutterstock

This fear is symptomatic not of the always-available business culture but rather a more worrying disease known simply as email addiction.

There are those who check their emails every few minutes - even in meetings and on holiday - and do not feel they can live without checking. A survey we conducted found that over 60 per cent of business users check their email when away from the office.

When probed, 20 per cent said it was self-inflicted as they perceived it was expected of them. Other surveys suggest some people are even checking their emails in the bathroom and at intimate moments.

Poor email behaviour is often just wallpaper covering much deeper structural faults - for example, a poor management culture or a lack of trust. The volume of emails often goes up during times of uncertainty. Personality, too, is a factor: those inclined towards introversion in Myers-Briggs terms tend to be more prone to email addiction.

The symptoms manifest themselves in a variety of ways. Most prevalent is the constant checking of email even on leave. When running workshops, one of the key challenges cited by people is that alternative media are rarely used.

Email has become the default communications channel, even when alternatives such as a short conversation would be more effective. This failing is the next most obvious symptom of email addiction. Other symptoms include a feeling that you cannot perform your job without constant email access and an expectation of an instant reply by email.

The email addiction disease presents hidden challenges and costs to businesses and organisations, not least in terms of the stress it generates and impact on productivity as a whole. We all need to take a break at some point to recharge the batteries.

What is the level of email addiction across your business? We have a simple seven-point survey tool that you can use to test your own and your business' exposure to the malaise.

Having benchmarked the level of infection and risk, what can be done to manage it? Clearly, unlike substance-related addiction, it is not treatable with medication. Rather you need to implement some email behaviour changes. Here are some strategies adopted by those who have started to try to eradicate the email addiction disease.

  1. Determine the underlying cause of the addiction. For example, is it job insecurity or a lack of trust in team members? It is interesting that when I work with clients they often comment that customers have far lower expectations about how quickly people should reply to email than internal senders.

  2. Develop a culture where people know it's OK to switch from email. Perhaps even encourage them either to make a conventional phone call or at the very least switch off the email component of their mobile device.
  3. Educate people about the value and use of alternative media, through formal and informal activities. For example, many businesses, including Intel and Atos Origin, have email-free periods during which people are encouraged to talk first and email later where necessary.

Curing email addiction does not happen overnight. While it requires a well-thought-out programme to which everyone is committed, it does not have to be onerous and complicated. But taking no action can be very costly in terms of the health of both the business and its employees.

Dr Monica Seeley is an international expert on email management. She is a visiting fellow at Cass Business School, City University, and has just written her third book Brilliant Email published by Pearson. You can follow her daily email tips and hints on Twitter.