E-mail overload causes stress for UK managers

Irrelevant and poor-quality e-mails are causing stress among UK executives, according to a study by the BCS and Henley Management...

Irrelevant and poor-quality e-mails are causing stress among UK executives, according to a study by the BCS and Henley Management College, writes John Kavanagh.

Even though 81% of bosses see e-mail as the communications technology that has had the greatest positive impact on the way they work, they are suffering stress from misuse of the facility and are concerned about the impact on their staff.

Managers say that just 42% of the e-mails they receive warrant a response. More than 33% are read for information only and nearly 25% get deleted immediately. The study found that 33% of e-mails are seen as irrelevant and unnecessary, with 30% regarded as essential, and 37% as important.

The quality of e-mail presentation and content emerges as a particular issue. Nearly 70% of executives say that less than 50% of the e-mail they receive is good quality. Criteria here include whether a message is concisely written, whether clear action is requested, whether attachments are explained, whether an appropriate address list is attached, and whether relevant chains of earlier correspondence are included.

Managers spend 20% of an average eight-and-a-half-hour working day dealing with e-mail - which makes this activity second only to attending meetings. On average, they get 52 e-mails a day, with 7% getting 100 or more. Eighty per cent of executives have remote access to their e-mail, and 86% manage their e-mail themselves.

Executives' mixed views about e-mail are reflected in their concerns about its impact on their staff. Of those surveyed, 75% believe the volume of information received has a negative impact on staff effectiveness, and reduces productivity and the quality of company communication. Managers also see e-mail as having a detrimental effect on individuals' stress levels.

BCS chief executive David Clarke says remedies are available to organisations to overcome many of the issues surrounding e-mail and thus fully exploit its benefits.

"There is growing recognition within corporate Britain of the problem of information overload, but initiatives to reduce its impact are still not widespread," he says. "Although half of UK organisations now give their staff general IT core skills training, our research shows that only one in five of them provide training in effective use of e-mail or the Internet.

"In addition, less than one in four organisations give their staff training in prioritisation and time management.

"Other research by Henley Management College has also identified three major strategies for dealing with information overload: organisation policies, filtering technology, and training for individuals. Our latest survey shows that many organisations are not fully adopting these strategies."

Clarke adds, "No wonder British companies continue to waste billions of pounds annually in IT system investment because of inefficient use and under-trained staff."

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