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The Cognitive (Insidious) Effect of Email

by | Sep 28, 2018 | Blog

Over the past 20 years, electronic mail has emerged as the most popular method of work communication. Two studies, one published in 2011 and the other a year later, suggest that employees, on average, spend more than two hours a day exchanging approximately 100 emails. Knowledge workers – people whose job involves the handling and using of information – spend roughly 28 percent of their work week reading and responding to e-mails, according to a Washington Post story published in 2012.  

These statistics make one wonder how workers function without it – assuming, of course, that all emails are work-related. But other research, including a recent study by Chris Rosen and Lauren Simon, management professors in the Sam M. Walton College of Business, indicates that workers might be functioning despite email, rather than because of it.

As a medium of business communication, email clearly has its advantages. It’s a quick and efficient means of delivering information to as many people as possible. And, as Rosen and Simon point out in their examination of email’s impact on organizational leaders, it is also asynchronous, meaning it occurs at different times.

Most people see this as a benefit, that email is not confined to or dependent on other items or events. But this asynchronous nature suggests one of email’s pitfalls, to use Rosen’s term. In this sense, it’s not only the volume of messages that burden people, but rather that it can happen at any time, which seems to disrupt and distract most workers from important tasks. This is especially true for people who have little impulse control, as Rosen and Simon found. 

Researchers, including Rosen and Simon, emphasize that this type of communication cannot be easily ignored, especially at offices with a cultural expectation that employees continuously check and respond to emails.

Perhaps more disturbing, though, are the lingering effects.

“Checking email, responding to it, and re-focusing attention afterward all require sustained cognitive effort,” Rosen said. “So it’s not just the ongoing monitoring, screening and sorting. Managing email also requires time for recovery. The average employee takes more than one minute to resume work after checking email. When you consider that most employees check email more than 90 times a day, this adds up to a lot of time taken away from important tasks.” 

About The Author

A former newspaper reporter, Matt McGowan writes about research in the College of Engineering, Sam M. Walton College of Business, School of Law and other areas. He is the editor of Short Talks From the Hill, a podcast of the University of Arkansas. Reach him at 479-575-4246, or dmcgowa@uark.edu.

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Camilla Shumaker
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