Slaves to our devices, and it’s beginning to fry our brains
Admit it. You’ve already checked your emails today, right? Even on a Sunday, we’re enslaved by two little words, 11 letters in total: Send/Receive.
On Wednesday, one Australian university will begin to fight back. Alarmed by a doubling in employee grievances and email-induced stress among her colleagues, Notre Dame University vice chancellor Celia Hammond has introduced a voluntary email-free scheme one morning a week.
Yes, voluntary: Prof Hammond initially suggested a compulsory three-hour shutdown, but the staff revolted - presumably via email.
“While everyone agrees email is an incredibly useful tool, it isn’t accompanied by eye contact, body language or facial communication – and has a higher likelihood of being misinterpreted,” Professor Hammond says.
“Sometimes you need to really think, to reflect on something, and the constant emails are very distracting.
“I’ve got staff who fear going on holiday, too, because of the mountain of emails that will be waiting on their return.
“My hope would be that, in due course, this ‘email free’ time becomes an occasion which staff look forward to each week.”
Emails are easy, they’re fast and they’re effective. So why are they’re making us obsessive, unproductive and inefficient?
I can spend hours, even days, doing nothing but responding to emails, kidding myself that I’m busy when in reality most could be tackled with a quick phone call and deleted.
Research coming out of the US in the past decade suggests instant communication is leading to compulsive behaviour; it’s upping our stress levels (constantly checking emails apparently keeps our minds on ‘high-alert’); and it’s overloading us with more information than our poor non-computerised brains can handle.
And all this, ultimately, is making us less - not more - productive. No wonder there’s a trend towards email-free days in America.
Adelaide psychologist Angie Willcocks says 24/7 access to emails is most definitely causing stress among employees who feel constantly compelled to check messages and guilty if they don’t respond immediately.
And that WIFI wonderment we all felt at being able to go online anywhere, any time, is quickly being replaced with a dreaded feeling that we’re slaves to work everywhere and all the time.
“Let’s say it’s a Sunday morning and you use your smartphone to check your emails - in 0.4 seconds you see a job that you’ll need to get stuck into when you get to work tomorrow,” Ms Willcocks says.
“That email could easily have waited until Monday morning, but instead of having a lovely Sunday with the family you spend all day stressing.”
Ms Willcocks says some families eager to restore work/life balance are banning phones at night and on weekends, “or even just for an hour at a time”, to end the compulsive checking.
“It’s inevitable that people will increasingly start to turn off from this constant communication - it’s unsustainable.”
The curse of the email is not limited to mental health, either.
Nadine Schultz, a physiotherapist from Uraidla in the Adelaide Hills, says a spike in “texting thumb” complaints a few years back has been replaced by neck, shoulder and upper-back strains caused by excessive use of iPads and tablets.
“Everyone’s sitting on the lounge with their heads bent over their iPads and no forearm support - it’s really bad for posture, and women seem especially susceptible.
“Anyone using a tablet for more than 15 minutes should really be sitting at the kitchen table, resting their forearms to take the load off their shoulders.”
So, on this lovely Sunday, will it be Send/Receive or Switch off/Get a life?
Professor Celia Hammond says she hopes her trial will “reminds us all ... that email is a communication tool that should not rule our lives and needs to be handled with care”.
Certainly pushes my button.
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