The sad story of the stressed emailers

Research suggests that the necessity to reply to emails is causing some people serious psychological problems.

Chris Matyszczyk
3 min read

What do your email habits say about you?

Do you feel fine when you wait a day or two to reply to an email? Do you feel driven to reply within 30 seconds of the message hitting your inbox? Or are you one of those people for whom email has simply become a source of stress akin to, oh, traffic on the 405? Or marriage.

Some recent research by Dr. Karen Renaud at the University of Glasgow and Dr. Judith Ramsay of Paisley University suggests that for some people the emailing thing has become all too much.

38% of people claim that they're pretty relaxed about the role of email in their lives. 28% drive through the pressure of email communication as if it were a Nascar race with Tony Stewart grazing their rear.

But the members of Problem Group, an alleged 34%, feel that email is overwhelming them to the point of derangement. They feel that those who have sent them emails have certain expectations.

CC JasonRogers

In their heads they hear the whispered demands to reply immediately. They fear that if they don't, they will be ostracized by some social bosom. This Problem Group is comprised of people pleasers. And we all know what an onerous task people pleasing can be. The majority of this Group, according to the researchers, is female.

Apparently, many people check their emails 30 to 40 times an hour. More times than David Beckham looks in the mirror.

And research from Loughborough University in England has suggested that it takes the average mind 64 seconds to readjust to the task at hand after being interrupted by an email. Add a few seconds more if you have one of those annoying beeps that tells you the lost soul in Accounts has sent you a fourth reminder to fill in your timesheets.

"The problem is that when you go back to what you were doing, you've lost your chain of thought and, of course, you are less productive," said Dr. Renaud.

In essence, she feels, all this email checking is just a virus for the brain. Before you know it, your mind is listless and you cannot muster the enthusiasm to create another PowerPoint.

Perhaps the strangest thing in all this is that those who are driven to answer emails within a nanosecond and those who psychologically sink beneath the deluge of their inbox have a common emotional characteristic. They just don't like themselves much.

Yet no one has discovered what happens to trigger a 'driven' person to suddenly become overwhelmed. Some scientists, including Dr. Tom Stafford from the University of Sheffield, are suggesting that email behavior is very similar to that exhibited by large Vegas tourists who have been sitting at the same slot machine for three days.

"Both slot machines and email follow something called a 'variable interval reinforcement schedule'," he told The Guardian newspaper, "which has been established as the way to train in the strongest habits. This means that rather than reward an action every time it is performed, you reward it sometimes, but not in a predictable way. So with email, usually when I check it there is nothing interesting, but every so often there's something wonderful - an invite out, or maybe some juicy gossip - and I get a reward."

If I put all this research together I have to conclude that gamblers really don't like themselves very much. And that Twitter users are, at least in part, escapees from this psychological emailing Guantanamo.

My biggest problem is that the pressure for a swift reply results in one writing emails that perhaps weren't meant to be written at all. Your physical reflexes work so quickly that your mind only catches up 64 seconds after you have pressed 'send.'

And then you sit there, oaf-like, suddenly realizing that you've agreed to attend a Hannah Montana concert with the folks from Procurement.