by Suzanne Le-May Sheffield, Centre for Learning and Teaching
I have been trying for a few months to contain my email responses. While I can’t control what comes into my inbox, I can control when, how quickly, and in what order, I respond to my email. As my days are often filled with meetings, I often resort to responding to email on evenings and weekends. But I had been noticing that others were remarking on the time stamps on my email (“I see you sent that email at 9:30pm last night!”). I decided I needed to make a change, but it was proving difficult. So at a staff meeting I made a promise to the colleagues in my unit. I would not send emails to them outside of work hours. I thought I might be more successful at keeping a promise I made to others than I would a silent one to myself. And I knew my colleagues would hold me to it and remind me of it!
The first evening after my announcement, I replied to email and saved them in my ‘Draft’ folder to send the next morning. (I have since learned that I can put a delayed send on my email and choose the time that it will go out.) Monitoring email, though, does not mean I have to respond to all emails I receive right away. Sometimes there is wisdom in waiting, considering, and thinking – before responding. But at the very least, I have pondered, it might make sense if I could refrain from responding to email in the first two-hours of my work day when I am at my most productive. Could I perhaps leave emails to answer in the late afternoon when my mental energy is waning and answering emails then would be a good use of my time?
The most interesting aspect of this exercise for me, though, was the anxiety that came up for me at not pressing ‘send’ immediately, or my seeming inability to ignore the ‘ting’ of the email calling me back to my laptop. I felt a compulsion to read and respond right away, and a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction as I heard the ‘whoosh’ of my message flying to its destination. Logically, I knew that adjusting my approach to and feelings towards email would be good for myself and for others, starting by switching off the sound on my laptop. I knew I needed to disconnect from work, physically and mentally. In 2014, a study reporting on the health effects of supplemental work from home, showed “an increased risk of reporting at least one health problem for employees who had been contacted by their employer … or worked in their free time to meet work demands … in the last 12 months, compared to those reporting no supplemental work or work-related contacts during free time.” (Arlinghaus and Nachreiner, 2014) Many employees and employers are concerned about the negative effects of working around-the-clock on family relationships, sleep and nutrition, physical and mental health, and general well-being; not to mention work productivity and creativity. And if that is not enough to convince me I need to make a change, then my children’s eye rolling and complaining about the amount of email I have to respond to should do it. My eight-year old told me this year, at the start of our summer holiday that responding to email was not a vacation. (He delivered this message to me along with a dramatization of me madly typing on my laptop.) That was a moment of pause for me. What messages am I sending to my children about how I value our time together and the role work should play in our lives? What are they learning from me?
Moreover, I have reflected: What do I think will happen if I take more than twenty-four hours to answer an email or if colleagues receive an ‘out of office’ message from me while I am on vacation? Do I think colleagues will believe I am less conscientious, less engaged, less committed to my work, less caring, if I do not respond immediately? I am sure I am not alone in feeling concern, worry and guilt about others’ perceptions in this regard. But I have decided that I need to start to think more deeply about how I want people to perceive me, and about my attitudes towards my own quality of life. How can I support others and do my job well if I do not take care of myself? It is my aspiration that, as a unit, we will collectively support one another to respect our own personal time. Slowly, I hope to be able to apply the same philosophy to the emails I receive from faculty, students and staff outside of my unit.
Addendum: Two weeks after my original promise was made, a colleague in my office both noticed and appreciated my efforts to stop sending email outside of work hours. As I make a positive change in my life, so too am I making a positive impact on the lives of others with whom I work and whose personal time I want to respect.
Patricia Kozicka, “After-work emails: banned in France, ‘a national epidemic’ in Canada”, Global News, May 27, 2016. http://globalnews.ca/news/2725886/after-work-emails-banned-in-france-a-national-epidemic-in-canada/
Rhymer Rigby, “How to switch off from work when you go on holiday”, The Telegraph, 16 Jul 2015. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/11741228/How-to-switch-off-from-work-when-you-go-on-holiday.html
Hugh Schofield, “The plan to ban work emails out of hours”, BBC News Magazine, 11 May 2016. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-36249647