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.  ( 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.



8 responses to “Some thoughts on the causes of workplace stress

  1. I am trying the GTD process to handle my e-mail glut. I find that it does work well in keeping my zero inbox.

    Personally, if you want to reduce your e-mail glut, then it should really start with you. I avoid e-mailing like a plague if I can. It may be the default tool, but you don’t have to follow the defaults, I know you’re smarter than the typical Apple drone (coming from someone that uses a Mac and an iPod) 😀

    So how do I do it? IM is usually my first choice. At the very least it records my conversation. However, I usually IM people to ask if they have time to talk on the phone/meet face to face/etc. Then schedule or ad-hoc (if time permits) if needed.

    Before the meetings I try to correlate all the information at hand using tools available. If you’re lucky you have Wikis that support collaboration and simultaneous editors. If you’re not as lucky, at least write a word doc or a non-concurrent wiki document then use NetMeeting (all windows systems have this just Start->Run then type in “Conf”).

    In short Talk to people and Share Information. That’s the one of best way of reducing the e-mail glut.

    One other thing that may derail you are people that have no etiquette. I’m sure you’ve had to deal with those kinds of people. If you talked with them then there may be a way of preventing this. However, if they are total douche bags, then just let it run through the escalation process. You don’t have to deal with every single problem, you have already shown leadership in my opinion by directly confronting the people first, but if they don’t change then bring management around, no one should be bullied.

    There are times when a storm is needed. The most common case is when people just don’t really have time to talk to each other. However, I mitigate this by breaking down conversations into a list of action items. Then schedule a meeting to get those questions answered. I schedule the meeting generally far away (I’ll get to why in a bit).

    I then send the list of action items and ask people to answer as many of them before the meeting; sometimes this is over many e-mails with different groups answering so reply all make sense. What it turns out is a very asynchronous slow meeting spread over several days. However, I tend to get the answers sooner. My guess is that people generally hate meetings, and if they can answer the problem without attending the meeting, they are so much happier. I’ve canceled many meetings using this approach. There is a little bit of a storm, but it is a storm you direct and control.

    (Yah I know I should really be blogging about this myself, just haven’t gotten around to resurrecting my blog).

    • smartpeopleiknow

      Great comments, Archie! I think the more people share their ideas, like you did, the easier it will get for others to make the transition. I think it is a learning process for people. But so was email. The sooner we can get people learning and then adopting, the better.

  2. Email knots is definitely a huge problem. I often see emails in my inbox that are one-liner questions: how do I do x? And the answer is either a one or two liner. What’s funny is that i can see that the colleague that just sent the email is online and available for IM and so am I. So wouldn’t it have been easier to just IM me? Now thanks to @elsua’s teachings i only get ~20 emails/day vs the 100+/day i used to get. In the old days, that one liner email would have added to my stress because it’s just 1 more unread email, and personally, unread emails give me stress. Ive gotten the advice to just delete those emails and if it was that important, they’ll come back to you. I just can’t do that.

    So slowly i’ve been able to teach my colleagues, new and faster ways to reach me and get their answers which has significantly reduced my stress! (and frees up a lot of my time so i can actually work on innovation). I just feel like some people use email in the wrong way when there are so many better tools out there that integrate easily into your daily life (even into your email client if you wanted to).

    • smartpeopleiknow

      Thanks, Luis! I think there needs to be a Getting Things Done guide for people switching from email to better media. If there was a simple primer, that might help. I think we have a long way to go, but I think we will get there.

      As for me, I like nothing better, when someone emails me a question, to send them – preferably not via email – back a link to a blog entry or a social bookmarking link. I save time and they (and others) get alot more value.

  3. Bernie, I think the big missing piece in every single article I read about how bad emails are is a real-life case of sustained use of social media (or anything else for that matter) for a large, mission critical business undertaking. I see anecdotal evidence, feel-good stories all over the place that are like the exceptions that confirm the rule.

    We all agree that email is a very imperfect way of communicating. But if any of the alternatives is significantly better for business purposes, why none of them have prevailed yet?

    Social media advocates – myself included – often resemble guerrilla revolutionaries who want to take the old regime down, but once in power don’t offer something significantly better.

    As you know, I really believe that social media is the right direction to go, but the road is still bumpy out there.

    • smartpeopleiknow

      Aaron, it is a very good question. Why is email so sticky, so to speak? I think partially things that make it bad also make it good. It is fast, easy, cheap and flexible in terms of communicating. That’s why it was able to beat out older technologies like memos and faxes.

      That said, I think it has conceded ground to such things as IM, SMS and social media platforms like Facebook. I know that I am others use those alot more for things that we used to use email for. But there is still along way to go.

      I’ll be interested to see what Facebook does with email. I think, for better or worse, they are the ones to transform email. Let’s see.

  4. It’s ironic that email is a mandatory field for us to post these comments bad-mouthing email, and both notification options are email-based 🙂

    WordPress should perhaps provide at least 3 options for identification: email, twitter, facebook.

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