How to reduce the stress of e-mail overload

E-mail Guidelines on using e-mail will free up employees' time, writes Monica Seeley

E-mail Guidelines on using e-mail will free up employees' time, writes Monica Seeley.

The results of a recent British Computer Society survey are hardly surprising: e-mail overload is causing stress.

Most people need to put their inbox on a diet and wean themselves off spending too much time on "noise" e-mails and concentrate on those that contain "information". "Noise" e-mails are those that add absolutely no extra value to how you do your job, act as a distraction and diminish productivity.

But "who" or what is the cause of the noise e-mail? Is it the individual or the organisation?

Who is to blame?

The contents of an inbox are like a DNA fingerprint of its owner. They show how employees operate on a day-to-day basis.

As an individual there is plenty you can do to save time and reduce stress. You could, for example, reduce the number of times you check your e-mails.

You should also control your use of attachments. Ask yourself: do I need to attache the whole page or just paste the salient information into the body of the e-mail? This will especially apply when communicating via PDAs.

Major productivity gains come into play only when organisations implement adequate e-mail best practice policies. By that I do not just mean a "netiquette" and security policy. Proper guidelines should be issued which set out how e-mail should be used as a communications and knowledge management tool.

For example, one guideline could be on the type of communications for which e-mail should and should not be used, in preference to other media such as the phone. Sadly, too few organisations have grasped this nettle. Those that do reap significant rewards.

Where to get advice

Successful companies have engaged the human resources, IT, and marketing and communications departments. The IT department can advise on technical issues, particularly those relating to security.

The human resources department should be assured that employees are using e-mail effectively. They can also advise on stress management practices and change management.

The marketing and communications department will be concerned about the use of e-mail as a written electronic communication. E-mails should reflect corporate values and standards and convey the right message, correctly, the first time.

What the board should do

Remember those days when we were trained in how to write business letters and answer the phone? E-mail is often the first point of contact for a potential customer or employee, but how many organisations have any corporate e-mail standards, let alone a staff training programme on how to use e-mail as a business communications tool?

Until the board recognises that it needs to own and address the way e-mail is used by employees, the best we can hope for is to achieve small evolutionary gains as we become better e-mail citizens.

The tide of unnecessary e-mails that impinge on our productivity and work-life balance needs to stop completely, and this can only be achieved by corporate intervention. Then, and only then, will e-mail become a real business asset.

Monica Seeley is founder of Mesmo Consultancy. Her book, Managing in the E-mail Office published by Butterworth Heinemann, is due out this month.

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