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No Emails Please After 6pm We Are Europeans Too

21/04/2014 16:57 BST | Updated 20/06/2014 10:59 BST

It is being suggested that British bosses should stop managers sending their employees emails after normal working hours like their German and French counterparts. However are France and Germany Labour Minsistry addressing the right cause or is this simple a sticky plaster to cover much deeper wounds?

Over the past few months much has been written about how stressed people are at work. The number of days off due to stress related conditions has risen over the past three years and now costs UK business about £70billion each year in lost productivity.

There is no doubt that email overload and email misuse is a major cause of this stress and anxiety. Over a decade ago email overload was recognised as a top ten stressor along with divorce and moving house. The signs are that by and large the situation has been left to fester.

The latest data on email traffic suggest that daily received email will increase about 3% year on year for at least the next five years. This despite the fact that many have suggest email is no longer fit for purpose and is dying.

A few organisations have been brave enough to tackle the email overload challenge through implementing email best practice charters and providing training across the whole organisation (from the CEO to the receptionist). However, whilst they can contain and change how they themselves use email, it is harder to control the behaviour of external senders (such as clients, suppliers and partners etc). Interestingly my own research suggests that it is often the internal sender who expects a far quicker reply than the external one. Although some clients say that now even in an emergency the client will send an email rather than phone. This means that certain people feel they must always be available and attached to their movable email devices. Nonetheless, even in these situations, the solution can be resolved by implementing better management processes, such as implementing an on-call rota.

This comes back to whether or not banning sending emails after working hours is tackling the right problem. Way back when (and before email and social media) many people worked a straight forward 35 hour working week, arriving at work at 9.00 am and leaving at 5.00 pm. One starts to wonder whether or not we have lost the plot about how to use our time properly. Before Tim Ferris and the 4-Hour Work Week we had C. Northcote Parkinson who taught us that work expands to fill the time. There was also Taylor's principles of scientific management. Both classic management approaches focused on how to improve performance through prioritisation and in Taylor's work flow processes. Yet both have been either largely forgotten or embedded in complex management systems and processes which few can understand. It is therefore far easier to tackle the here and now rather than taking a broader strategic approach. This is exemplified by that fact that

a major problem I observe when working with clients is that people allow themselves to be distracted by each new email and often respond instantly. This may also reflect a touch of email addiction which is very prevalent in business where many feel insecure and a need to be seen to achieving all the time.

Thus the way in which email is used and abused is a reflection of many factors as shown below. Perhaps it is time to step back and look not just at the use of email but rather the wider aspects of how organisations behave.

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A recent study found that managers are one of the major sources of wasted time through sending too many emails and calling too many meetings. Certainly one recent assignment supports these findings.

The organisation called me in to address their perceived email overload. A closer review revealed that the main cause of the excessive use of emails and long hours culture was the fact that the top management team were constantly in meetings. The consequence was long emails chains between managers and workers because the workers could never have proper face time with their bosses. The solutions: Friday afternoons are now designated as no formal meeting time but rather an open door drop in time for anyone. The result is significantly improved communications and reduced email traffic.

There is little doubt that the email overload syndrome needs addressing. Email overload is as these examples demonstrate often the symptom of much deeper malaises such as poor time management, communications, people management and indeed a simple inability to prioritise and focus on what really needs attention. Imposing an outright ban is really not the right solution: it is a sledge hammer to crack open a nut.

Undoubtedly more organisations need to adopt a proper email best practice charter which incorporates both acceptable response times and when it is acceptable to switch off. For this to be effective it needs to be lead from the very top and articulated as a proper culture and behaviour change management programme and aligned to the corporate values. Where email addiction is prevalent this too needs curing.

Then we can start to enable workers to re-balance their work-life balance and work to more normal hours.