How to cope with email overload

Andrew Crosby has 7,000 emails in his inbox. To some that might not sound like many, but he’s only been at Relax Gaming for a year, so there’s not been much time for the inbox to get out of control.

As a senior executive at the software company, which has eight offices around Europe, he fields around 140 emails a day.

“You have to pick and choose what you think is going to be relevant to yourself… you can get cc’ed into so many emails that are nothing to do with yourself whatsoever,” he says.

And there’s the key problem with email. The message that might contain the single most important thing you need to know all year, could well disappear into the landfill that is your inbox.

Email malaise

It’s not just inefficient, it’s also bad for your health.

Email overload is causing people to get ill,” says Cary Cooper, organisational psychology professor at Manchester University.

His research has found that higher email load is associated with higher workload stress.

“The problem is there aren’t good guidelines on what is the best use of email and the things we should not do,” he says.

  • Could your firm move to a four-day week?
  • UK productivity continues lost decade

“We cc in everybody rather than just the one or two people we should be interacting with. Line managers should never send emails outside of office hours to their subordinates unless it’s absolutely essential.

“There’s no point in sending someone an email on a Friday night saying you don’t have to deal with this until Monday, because people will then worry about it and do it that weekend.”

But he is not saying that email should be eliminated altogether.

“It’s a great way to keep in touch with people, particularly who are remote. It’s a great way to send data, to send information. By itself it’s fine – it’s the way people are using it is the problem,” says Prof Cooper.

Enforced breaks

France has tried to improve the situation. In 2017, a law was introduced that obliged firms to come up with a plan to ensure staff get a break from office emails. In August 2018, the French arm of Britain’s Rentokil Initial was ruled to have broken that law and was ordered to pay an employee €60,000 (£53,000).

No such rules exist here in the UK, but some firms have taken action anyway.

Platypus Digital is a marketing agency which runs fundraising campaigns for charities. From the very start, in 2014, its founders banned internal emails and any staff who forget have to donate £5 to charity.

“We’d all worked in charities and companies that had been around a lot longer and experienced that internal email overload, where the majority of your day is trawling through internal updates that you don’t need to be a part of,” says managing director Matt Collins.

Instead, the company’s seven employees use a messaging service and documents software from Google, and a project management system from Asana.

“We decided to use tools that were much more effective and much more fun,” Mr Collins adds.