E-mail is making us miserable

Other researchers have found similar connections between e-mail and unhappiness. A study, published in 2019, looked at long-term trends in the health of a group of nearly five thousand Swedish workers. They found that repeated exposure to “high information and communication technology demands” (translation: a need to be constantly connected) were associated with “suboptimal” health outcomes. This trend persisted even after they adjusted the statistics for potential complicating factors such as age, sex, socioeconomic status, health behavior, body-mass index, job strain, and social support. Of course, we don’t really need data to capture something that so many of us feel intuitively. I recently surveyed the readers of my blog about e-mail. “It’s slow and very frustrating. . . . I often feel like email is impersonal and a waste of time,” one respondent said. “I’m frazzled—just keeping up,” another admitted. Some went further. “I feel an almost uncontrollable need to stop what I’m doing to check email,” one person reported. “It makes me very depressed, anxious and frustrated.”

When employees are miserable, they perform worse. They’re also more likely, as the French labor minister warned, to burn out, leading to increased health-care costs and expensive employee turnover. A Harvard Business School professor found that giving a group of management consultants predictable time off from e-mail increased the percentage of them who planned to stay at the firm “for the long term” from forty per cent to fifty-eight per cent. E-mail’s power to makes us unhappy also has more philosophical implications. There are two hundred and thirty million knowledge workers in the world, which includes, according to the Federal Reserve, more than a third of the U.S. workforce. If this massive population is being made miserable by a slavish devotion to in-boxes and chat channels, then this adds up to a whole lot of global miserableness! From a utilitarian perspective, this level of suffering cannot be ignored—especially if there is something that we might be able to do to alleviate it.