Work anxiety: how email etiquette can help your workforce

When it comes to work anxiety, the humble email can be both cause and solution – or even the means of diagnosing the problem…

Emails, like many other business tools we use, can be a good servant and a bad master. They empower flexible working, but also contribute to the ‘always on’ culture which can be a major cause of stress in the workplace. And since the resilience of any business depends on that of the individuals within its workforce, it’s in everyone’s interests to reduce the impact of stress as much as we can.  

So, to combat work anxiety – and its weekend partner in crime ‘Sunday Dread’ – it’s important to look at how your business uses emails and how your employees feel about their use.

Aviva recently surveyed 2,000 9-to-5 workers from a variety of industries across the UK, revealing that three quarters of employees checked emails at weekends – and almost half favoured a total weekend email ban.

Although it might only take a moment to check an email or two, the effects of doing this can be more long lasting. US academic William Becker 1, author of a report on the effect of electronic communications on employee stress, says:

"Every time you check your email or glance at your phone to see if you have an email or other communication, your brain actually shifts back to work mode. And so what can happen is you can get stuck in work mode all the time."

But a weekend email embargo would have its downside, too. Depending on the industry concerned and its trading hours, or in the case of self-employed people, a blanket ban simply may not be feasible. It’s also true to say that glancing through emails on a Friday night might prevent a full weekend of worry, and knowing that you have the flexibility to do some work at weekends can remove feelings of guilt arising from taking time out for personal commitments in midweek.

Aviva’s Debbie Bullock agrees:

As UK Wellbeing lead at Aviva, I’m often asked about a blanket email ban at weekends and after hours. And I always respond in the same way – that this isn’t right. Instead you need to focus on creating the right culture in your organisation, empowering people to manage their workload so they can review emails at the time that suits them, but without the pressure to respond when they’ve chosen not to be working.

Debbie Bullock, UK Wellbeing Lead, Aviva

So perhaps it’s not the email itself that’s the problem – even at weekends – but the way we use them. It’s worth considering some simple ‘rules of thumb’ to make sure emails remain a valuable flexible working tool rather than a drain on both work and leisure time:

Email etiquette – eight ‘rules of thumb’

  1. Are you sure an email is best option?

    Sometimes it’s quicker and more efficient just to pick up the phone – or perhaps better still, to have a face-to-face chat. You can get across your exact needs more easily… and maybe avoid creating a monster in the form of an endless email trail!
  2. If you send an email at a time when the recipients are unlikely to be working, make it clear that you don’t expect a reply right away.

    At Aviva some of us choose to add a footer to our email templates which explains this:

    Work/life balance is important to me and to Aviva, so we work flexibly. If you get this email outside your working hours, please don’t feel the need to respond until your working day starts again. Thanks.
  3. Don’t overuse the ‘reply to all’ button.

    Much of the stress surrounding emails is about the sheer quantity we have to work through, rather than their content. Think carefully about which recipients need to see your response.
  4. Give some thought to tone of voice.

    In written language, a light-hearted comment can appear more serious than it’s meant to. We’ve all encountered that person who comes across as a dragon via email, but a pussy cat in real life. Using emojis can help to ‘defuse’ your communication, but if in doubt, pick up the phone!
  5. Don’t rely on the email trail to do your talking for you.

    Working back through an endless email trail to work out what’s actually needed is a major cause of frustration – especially amongst people who already have a heavy workload. It’s better to summarise the ‘backstory’ yourself and relate it to what the recipient needs to do.
  6. Consider who needs to be ‘cc’ed.

    Including people who aren’t directly involved in the matter in hand doesn’t just create more work for the person who is being included in the communication. It can also contribute to the development of a ‘blame culture’, if that person is a senior manager. An implicit threat of ‘you’d better do this, because the boss knows I’ve asked you to’ can only increase stress.
  7. Use clear headings.

    Much as we’d like to believe that our emails are read and actioned immediately because our name is on them, a clear indication of the subject matter helps the recipient to action emails in order of urgency. Why not use the subject line to make it clear what the reader needs to do? If your email is just for information, say so. If it’s a request for action, make it clear from the start. 
  8. ‘Out of office’ can be a useful white lie.

    Finally, a hint for the reader as well as the writer. Activating an ‘out of office message’ to catch up on a backlog of emails can buy the breathing space that makes the difference between a weekend of anxiety and one spent happily recharging the batteries.

Using email to diagnose employee anxiety

Early identification of employees who are suffering from work anxiety is crucial if we are to prevent problems such as absenteeism and presenteeism further down the line. Training managers to recognise the signs is always worthwhile, but it’s less well known that the email itself can be a useful diagnostic tool.

Psychologist James Pennebaker is co-founder of a company which uses natural language processing to identify potential discontent amongst groups of workers. The software they use picks up on natural clues given by language choices. For example, people who are less happy tend to use personal pronouns (‘I’ and ‘me’) more frequently, and pronouns referring to other people (such as ‘he’ and ‘she’) less frequently.

 An interesting insight which you could share with your managers. Maybe you could send them an email about it…

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