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E-mail's up--is the boss watching?

U.S. workers spend almost a quarter of their day dealing with e-mail, according to a survey--and bosses are bucking conventional wisdom in their response.

U.S. workers spend nearly a quarter of their day dealing with e-mail, according to a new study.

The study, conducted by the American Management Association, along with communication management software company Clearswift and the ePolicy Institute, found that employees who use e-mail spend an average of about an hour and 47 minutes handling messages every day at work. Eight percent said they spend more than four hours doing so.

But that time doesn't seem to be going to waste. A full 86 percent of respondents said e-mail has made them more efficient, with just more than half saying it's made them much more efficient.

The study, titled 2003 E-Mail Survey, polled 1,100 U.S. employers. Its findings buck the conventional wisdom that companies frequently monitor employee e-mail. Although 90 percent of the respondents said their companies had installed software that observes e-mail on the corporate network, just 19 percent said they are using it.

The authors of 2003 E-Mail Survey urged businesses to better track and develop policies for employees' e-mail use in order to avoid risking legal liability and the loss of productivity and confidential information.

"Management's failure to check internal e-mail is a potentially costly oversight," Ivan O'Sullivan, vice president of survey cosponsor Clearswift, said in a statement. "Off-the-cuff, casual e-mail conversations among employees are exactly the type of messages that tend to trigger lawsuits, arm prosecutors with damaging evidence and provide the media with embarrassing real-life disaster stories."

The study found that e-mail continues to be a source of potential liability for a company. According to the survey, 14 percent said a court or regulatory body had ordered them to turn over e-mail, up from 9 percent two years ago.

Surprisingly, spam wasn't a major focus of the study, despite its reputation as the scourge of Internet users everywhere. Although unsolicited junk mail was listed by the survey as one of the negative effects of e-mail, just 12 percent of respondents said they wasted too much time on spam. More people--19 percent--felt they spent too much time reading and answering e-mail.