Skip to main content

Welcome to the weekly Careers newsletter from The Globe and Mail. To subscribe, click here.

Radhika Panjwani is a freelance writer from Toronto.

  • Interruptions from e-mail increase stress
  • Stress from overflowing inboxes can be managed when teams have clear e-mail policies and guidelines
  • Emerging tools such as using artificial intelligence for e-mail management can improve performance and efficiency

The more time employees spend responding to e-mails, the greater was their sense of being overwhelmed, a Canadian study found.

But by combining artificial intelligence tools with strong policies at the team level, companies can alleviate the stress caused by the overflowing inbox, experts said.

“If you’re constantly interrupted at work, this will affect the performance and productivity of your team as stress can spill over from individual level to team level,” said Shamel Addas, a professor of digital technology at the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University in Kingston and one of researchers of the study. “We found that introducing good [e-mail] practices tend to be most effective at the team level. Teams should set a best practices policy that includes among other things, when to send an e-mail versus opt for another collaboration tool [for example, slack or phone]; what constitutes as a congruent [suitable to main scope of work] e-mail? Who should you cc and more.”

Additionally, managers must spell out a time-response window, based on urgency, and clear guidelines on deploying “reply all” e-mails. Organizations must also consider AI tools for e-mail management strategies, he said.

The research team found when employees participated in several ongoing threads of e-mail or parallel communications simultaneously, these disjointed discussions caused significant subjective overload. Subjective overload refers to the extent to which a worker feels their work to be mentally and physically demanding, Prof. Addas said.

The scholars studied 350 sales professionals’ e-mail habits for the research. The study found if the e-mails were congruent, for example, relevant to the employee’s main tasks such as client feedback or key information about a project, while it also increased stress, it spurred mindfulness as employees became more sensitive to context and perspective. They also became engaged and present.

You’ve got mail and anxiety

Georgetown University computer science professor and productivity writer Cal Newport writes in The New Yorker that the need to communicate constantly via e-mails has resulted in social distress as employees can now barely keep up with their inboxes.

“As long as we remain committed to a workflow based on constant, improvised messaging, we will remain in a state of low-grade anxiety,” Mr. Newport writes. “To return to our motivating question, there are many reasons why e-mail makes us miserable. It creates, for example, a tortuous cycle that increases the amount of work on our plate while simultaneously thwarting, through constant distraction, our ability to accomplish it effectively.”

His suggestion’s to use e-mails and other tools with regular, brief status meetings and cut down on e-mail threads. Also, Mr. Newport says companies must move beyond assigning e-mail addresses to individuals, instead addresses be related to specific requests and managed and monitored by different employees.

AI can help

Promising new research shows AI-powered solutions can help automate the inbox and simplify day-to-day e-mail management, explained Prof. Addas. Here are some options:

  • E-mail prioritization: AI systems can learn from our e-mail activity, such as: which messages we open first, which ones we reply to and when. By analyzing our usage patterns, AI can categorize congruent and incongruent e-mails and sort them into low, medium and high priority folders so that important messages can be addressed promptly while lowering overall stress levels.
  • Feedback buttons: Introduce “Like” or “thank you” buttons on incongruent e-mails to eliminate the generation of unnecessary e-mails. For example, a “Like” button is already available in new Outlook 365 deployments.
  • Context Aware Systems: Use AI in e-mail clients to screen task-relevant content and sift and separate interruptions based on peoples’ availability or the task at hand, thus minimizing interruptions. The e-mail program can also be automated to manipulate the timing by silencing unproductive interruptions until a more opportune time.
  • Summarize and extract key content: By leveraging natural language processing, AI can extract relevant topics from e-mails and highlight them. It can also be used to summarize long e-mails, extract action items or deadlines and create calendar events.

“The integration of AI into e-mail management is not just an improvement; it’s a transformation of how we conduct work,” Prof. Addas said. “By automating routine tasks, prioritizing communication and reducing distractions, AI is setting the stage for a more focused and efficient workplace. I anticipate within the next few years, these AI-enhanced e-mail systems will become the new standard, transforming our approach to e-mail management and enabling professionals to reclaim valuable time for more strategic tasks.”

What I am reading

  • According to this CNBC story, the female work force in the U.S. is increasingly frustrated with less work-life balance and more work. Survey results show fewer women got raises and promotions.
  • This blog in offers a comprehensive look at the remote working scene in Canada including trends and the most in-demand remote jobs.
  • The scrouge of ageism strikes as mid-career Gen X workers get passed over for jobs, says this story on BBC.

Have feedback for this newsletter? You can send us a note here.

Interact with The Globe