Daily Archives: November 17, 2010

Some thoughts on the causes of workplace stress

What causes workplace stress? Is it email? Or is it something else.

I got into a discussion on twitter — yes, you can have discussion on twitter!:) – with my IBM colleagues @ @ and @,
and I said “I think overwork is the main problem, not email. email acerbates the problem of overwork.” It was a result of this article, Email storm creates workplace stress – IBM, email – CIO.

Generally I agree with the article: “unanswered emails” contribute to workplace stress, email is the most commonly used collaborative tool but
is often used in the wrong way, and that new tools can make things less stressful and more productive. That is half the story, and I actually learned this over two decades ago, when I worked in an area of IBM that allocated more IT resources to thousand of VM users on our mainframes. If a user wanted more memory, or hard disk space, or system privileges, they would fire off an email to an administrator, who would read it and try to figure out what the request was and try to respond to it, something like this:

The emails were free form and  often unclear. And there were alot of them. It was hard work for the admins, and frustrating for the users.

That was Phase I. For Phase II, what we did was give the users an online form to request resources. The admin still got email requests, but now they were standardized and clear. As a result, the admins could process them more quickly, and became more productive. The process also became less frustrating for the users. Most requests were standard, but we allowed special requests go directly to the admins if necessary.

Finally we went to this:

Now we put a layer of software between the users and the admins. Because the requests were standard emails, we could process over 80% of them with software without the admin ever having to see them. This meant that we could process many more requests than before.

Overall, it was not so much that EMAIL was the problem, but the way people used email. Because we could standardize it this way, we were able to automate the processing of it and subsequently process ALOT more email and yet reduce the overall stress to the admins.

Now if that happened twenty years ago, why are we still having these problems? I think it is because eMail is the tool that people know. Instead of using the best tool, they use the default tool, which is email and which is often the worst tool. To compound the problem, people don’t even communicate effectively in email. I don’t know how many times I have seen this happen:

Where A sends an email to X, Y and Z to process with plan #1 by Friday. However, Z, who knows B, forwards the email to B, asking for some clarification. B then forwards the email to C, who says that plan #1 can’t work, so they should proceed with plan#2 instead. Now B for some reason tells X and Z that they should do plan #2, not plan #1. From here things either freeze up, a flurry of emails are generated, or a meeting is called to resolve the miscommunication.

So email is half the problem. The other half, the more important half, is that when people are busy or too busy, this happens more. I see this often because I do project work and I see email ebb and flow at the end and at the peak of projects. In the peak of projects, when work is at its highest level, there is more of a chance of these knots to occur, as well as lots of emails not to be processed in a timely manner because it is not clear what I am supposed to do with it.  (e.g.is it an FYI, is it a request for me to do work, is it a request for someone to do work?). Very busy people often produce and receive more email and often send out email with unclear purposes. I think the work drives the problem, and email itself enables this to occur. But if the workload is low, it is easier to reduce the problem.

I am a big proponent of social media tools. I think they are better in many ways than email as a form of communication. However, if your staff are overloaded, better tools, while enabling them to be more productive, will break down at a certain point. Any resource, human or otherwise, will do so. The challenge is to drive automation to support and enable your employees to be peak performers. Workload balance is one way to do that. Better tools (i.e moving away from email) is the other.