Checking email too frequently a major cause of stress, study suggests

According to two UBC psychologists, checking emails less frequently could leave students less stressed this semester.

Kosta Kushlev, PhD Candidate at the department of psychology and a Vanier Scholar, and Elizabeth Dunn, associate professor of psychology, have carried out a study showing that checking emails less frequently reduces stress. Kushlev and Dunn wanted to find out if there was a more efficient and less stressful way to handle email.

Kushlev and Dunn recruited a diverse sample of 124 participants including undergraduates, graduates and professionals. The two-week field experiment allowed the subjects to carry out their lives normally except that they were given instructions on how to handle their email.

During the first week, half of the sample was asked to check their email three times a day, close their mailboxes, and switch off notifications, while the other half was asked to do the opposite and check emails as often as possible. The second week those restrictions were reversed. Kushlev and Dunn looked at the stress levels of each group during those two weeks.

Checking emails frequently can cause stress because it “fragments our attention,” Kushlev said in the study.

According to Kushlev, there is previous research showing that when people are multitasking they might feel like they’re getting a lot of work done, but at the end of the day they are less efficient in their tasks and could be making worse decisions and errors. Email is a constant source of new tasks which can result in a paradox where you are constantly checking emails that provide more things to, resulting in less efficiency.

“It’s about reducing the amount of times you check your email overall and picking a number that suits you,” said Kushlev.

The best way to reduce checking emails is to turn off email notifications on your phone so that the sound or vibration doesn’t bother you when you are working or relaxing, Kushlev said. Another smart trick is to move your email box app to the last page on your phone so that you only see it when you want to.

Email is useful but can be even more useful if you manage it correctly. “Breaking any habit is difficult,” Kushlev said, “but putting in the effort to reduce checking your email could be beneficial in the long term.”