A recent Scientific American article on the strain of always being on call summarizes the stressful effects of always being connected to work. The modern workday may be unique in human history, in that we receive hundreds of messages per day, from colleagues and customers working across time zones worldwide, 24 hours and 7 days per week, nearly anywhere on our mobile devices. While the connectivity that has resulted in this faster pace of business has its benefits, being always-on-call blurs the boundary between work and home life. Not only is work intrusion into personal time a problem, “just knowing that work might reach you makes it hard to relax and recover” according to the article. As it turns out, overburden causes stress both directly and indirectly.
The root cause corrective action to this problem requires everyone in the organization agreeing to unplug outside of work hours, coordinate some type of reasonable overlap in time zone coverage, and finding better performance measures that take burnout into account. These are huge cultural shifts that require steady leadership commitment. This takes time to do across the total organization. While it is possible for one department or team to commit to a more balanced way of working than always-on-call, if other leaders, customers or departments demand always-on, it becomes difficult to sustain. The best course of action to address this may be for individuals to take small, meaningful steps, reducing personal strain and also changing the culture slowly.
One practical way to do this is through the 4Ds of e-mail management. It is all about deliberately managing emails rather than letting incoming emails manage you. Whenever checking e-mail (and this should not be constantly!), the first action is to scan the inbox to Delete any junk or unnecessary messages, and then to Delegate tasks that can or should be done by others. Next is to select the emails that require more than a quick reply, and to Defer these. Finally, for any emails that can be actioned with a quick reply, simply Do. Here are some helpful hints on the 4Ds of e-mail management from Microsoft.
In addition to these 4Ds of email management, I strongly recommend the 5th D which is to Disconnect from email periodically by working offline or stepping away from computers or mobile devices to focus on work priorities. Even remaining disconnected from email for 1 or 2 hours can make a big difference in the level of freedom from distraction one can achieve. Perhaps it can also reduce some of the stress that people feel from being always-on-call, as the Scientific American article identifies.
The 6th D is to Declare e-mail bankruptcy. Sometimes we come back from vacation, multi-day workshops or off-site meetings, or even just an incredibly busy month, to find that there are hundreds or even thousands of emails that in the inbox waiting to be read. This can become an impossible burden to overcome when combined with the daily flow of emails and other responsibilities. Declaring email bankruptcy is simply informing others that any emails received before a certain date will not be read or actioned. Those emails are placed in a folder for review or referencing when time allows in the future, or if someone sends a reminder of an urgent action or request a response. Unlike financial bankruptcy which remains for 7 years on one’s record, it is possible to bounce back from a typical email bankruptcy in 7-10 days. This may seem like a drastic measure, but when it is unlikely in reality that we can process the huge backlog of emails anyway, we might as give people the courtesy of letting them know this.
The seventh D is to take a Deep breath. This can dampen the body’s reaction to stress, slowing the production of stress hormones, lowering blood pressure, aiding digestion and generally helping to reset our stressed system. Responding immediately to emails when stressed or allowing emotions or fatigue to be our co-author generally does not improve the communication. Taking a deep breath helps us interrupt a potential reaction. Whether typing emails or just generally feeling stressed about always being on call, taking a few deep breaths is an simple positive action.
There is nothing technically challenging about using the 7Ds to manage email. The basic thinking can be applied to prioritizing and managing almost any type of work. The challenge to resisting the always-on-call condition is more a social one – being seen as unhelpful by colleagues, being seen as unresponsive or unavailable by those in power, or feelings of letting others down. In general we can be more effective by working deliberately with a process, freed from strain and burden, rather than trying to do too much and failing. Even if the 7D are not enough, there is always the 8th – vitamin D – leaving email and mobile device behind to take some step in the daylight for a broader perspective on life and work.