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Fixing Our Unhealthy Obsession with Work Email

Fixing Our Unhealthy Obsession with Work Email

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Focus is held in high esteem in our culture and in business. We medicate, caffeinate, and meditate to summon it. It’s celebrated on billboards and taught through thousands of books and workshops.

Typical is this quote from the recent article, “ How Successful People Spend Their Weekends ”:

“I never go into the office on weekends,” Spencer says, “ but I do check e-mail at night . [Emphasis added.] My weekends are an important time to unplug from the day-to-day and get a chance to think more deeply about my company and my industry. Weekends are a great chance to reflect and be more introspective about bigger issues.”

I don’t think he’s getting the “break” he thinks he’s getting. It’s incongruent to say, “My weekends are an important time to unplug,” while admitting he’s still checking email at least twice on the weekends.

And not even vacations are sacrosanct. Here’s another common piece of advice from a different article:

“Put away your devices while you’re on vacation. Designate a couple of consistent times per day, so your team knows when you will be checking in.”

So, in short, put away your devices while you’re on vacation, until you take them out again multiple times a day so that you can work, and apparently vacation activities will need to be scheduled around work check-ins!

Make no mistake: comments like these show how entrenched always-on work cultures have become. Researchers now call it “telepressure,” and define it as, “ an urge to quickly respond to emails, texts and voicemails – regardless of whatever else is happening or whether one is even ‘at work.’” And such always-on cultures actually sabotage productivity. The research has shown that more downtime correlates to more benefits . Overworked, stressed-out, fearful employees will not be a good source of creative ideas. In this summary of studies for Innovation Management, a Swedish consultancy company, Gaia Grant, author of Who Killed Creativity…and How Can We Get it Back? , writes, “Creative thinking requires a relaxed state, the ability to think through options at a slow pace and the openness to explore different alternatives without fear.” And according to Jen Spencer, founder of The Creative Executive , “play” is an important component in creativity, and if all people do is work, they’re crowding out “play times” that are important to generating innovative ideas. “When we balance work with play, it’s like cross-training our minds and our soul. Play is about enjoyment, relaxation, and recreation, which gives our minds the ability to replenish the resources we need to be strategic, make new connections, and innovate.” Put another way, telepressure and innovation cannot coexist.

The way for both leaders and employees to manage this issue is to recognize this, and also realize that we – each of us — have the final say in what is acceptable.

What Leaders Can Do

If you’re a leader in your organization, your actions influence the culture. If you choose to refrain from sending late-night emails, your employees won’t feel pressured to check their devices. Some messages from the recently released Hillary Clinton emails provide a clear example of how leadership sets the pace of work:

Your staying home tomorrow will make lots of parents at higher levels feel ok about staying home with their kids. I may be one of them! Staffer to Hillary Clinton



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