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Why an 'e-mail vacation' might be good for your health

New research suggests that taking a 5-day break from e-mail while on the job results in less stress and greater focus.

Workers cut off from office e-mail for five days exhibited more natural, variable heart rates and toggled between screens less frequently than those with e-mail access, according to new research out of the University of California, Irvine, and the Army's Natick Soldier Systems Center near Boston.

Gloria Mark (right) presented her team's findings this week. University of California

The "A pace not dictated by electrons" study of 13 civilian employees at the Army center is undoubtedly small, and the results, presented this week at a meeting of the Association for Computing Machinery in Austin, Texas, are only preliminary. Still, researchers say the findings were surprisingly consistent in favor of taking "e-mail vacations."

"We were surprised by the results, because they didn't have to turn out this way," study co-author Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at UC Irvine, tells HealthDay News. "It's possible that people might have been even more stressed not to have e-mail, to feel like they were missing out on something, so we didn't expect that people would become significantly less stressed."

The 13 employees tested were roughly half men and half women and all held information-related jobs, including a chemical engineer, psychologist, biologist, food technologist, and research administrator. Each participated in three days of heart rate monitoring to establish baselines before either forgoing e-mail for five days or maintaining a normal e-mail activity level.

Those who had normal e-mail access were in a consistently "high-alert" state, with constant heart rates, and switched screens on average 37 times per hour. Those without e-mail access exhibited more normal, variable heart rates, and switched screens only 18 times an hour, suggesting that they were both less stressed and more focused.

Mark also noted that those without e-mail access were more likely to take short screen breaks and walk around, as well as communicate with co-workers in person. She says she'd like to study this further, including the effects so-called e-mail vacations might have on one's interpersonal skills.

A confession: I toggled between my e-mail tab, Word, and iTunes almost 20 times in the past 20 minutes alone, and that doesn't count getting up for more water, checking a text message, and double checking my calendar to see what time my mother's flight lands.

So an e-mail break sounds great, but logistically, I'm just not sure I could manage it, or that I would multitask less without e-mail. Let's hope the researchers take this study to a much larger research pool and report back.