The New Science of “Telepressure”
(note: I read a recent article by Mandy Oaklander on Time.com (8Nov14) and felt it was so compelling her work was certainly deserved sharing. I have paraphrased Mandy’s words only slightly and commend her work as a relevant and thoughtful piece).
Email was supposed to free up time in workplace communications. We could send them in lieu of an in-person meeting, work remotely, and take our time crafting one instead of blurting out something stupid.
But now that everyone is so instantly reachable, work email has slipped its tentacles into our off-the-clock lives, subtly demanding evening responses and extending the workday indefinitely.
Today 52 percent of Americans check email before and after work, even on sick days. Their justification logic is that ignoring email seems more stressful than dashing off a quick response. But new research published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology explains that continuous connection comes with a cost to our health and well-being.
Larissa Barber, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Northern Illinois University, calls this phenomenon “telepressure.”
She describes telepressure as the urge to respond immediately to work-related messages, no matter when they come.
“It’s like your to-do list is piling up, so you’re cognitively ruminating over these things in the evening and re-exposing yourself to workplace stressors,” Barber says.
The study concludes that this continuous work connection has very real health effects. Employees who scored highly on telepressure also reported worse sleep, higher levels of burnout, and more health-related absences from work.
“When people don’t have this recovery time,” Barber says, “it switches them into an exhaustion state, so they go to work the next day not being engaged.”
Why do people feel this need to reply so fast? Rarely are businesses forcing us to respond—only 21% of workplaces have policies about communication use outside of work hours (according to a 2012 survey from the Society of Human Resource Management).
“It’s so new to us, this idea of boundary-less work, that we’re just not sure how to manage it yet,” Barber says.
Barber’s study also looked at whether individual traits predicted who felt telepressured, or if being a type-A overachiever made you more or less susceptible than those with more laidback working habits. Her results revealed that individual differences are a weak association; and that telepressure is a workplace problem, not a worker problem.
“We learn how to respond to email through our colleagues’ behavior,” she said, “and it’s a consequence of the social dynamics within a work environment. “‘As soon as possible” means different things to different people, but of course if you’re nervous about impressing your boss or coworkers, you probably think it needs to be immediately,” says Barber.
How can you make yourself less telestressed?
“First, think about where your own telepressure is coming from,” Barber says. “It may be worth having a conversation with your supervisor about email expectations—or, if you’re the boss, try to be a good role model for connectivity and recovery.”
Barber also recommends changing the conversational nature of your emails.
“We’ll talk to people like we’re having those synchronous conversations, face-to-face,” she says. “We’ll send an email and say, ‘Hey, what do you want to do for lunch today?’”
Conversational back-and-forth emails like that all but demand an immediate response, partly because it seems rude not to reply. But being explicit about the purpose and timeline of your email really helps. Barber keeps a kind of email office hours, letting her inquirers know what time she’s available to answer messages. She ends her emails to me with phrases like “No need to respond to this message” and “I look forward to hearing from you between 8:30-11:30am tomorrow.” She feels that such clarity helps feel improve message and emotional management.
But as much as we hate being telepressured, Barber says too many love telepressuring others.
“We all get kind of used to that immediate gratification of getting fast responses and having those communications that are complete,” Barber says. “We all like it when other people are telepressured, because it helps us complete our tasks faster.”
While telepressure is neither sustainable nor good for our health—and it might take an email revolution of a different sort to change things—it’s up to us to manage our minds and behaviors.
If the digital world is starting to get to you, create and protect some private time. Force a separation between you and your tools. Make sure you are using them, and that they are not using you.
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