Something’s Got to Give: Email Burnout vs. the 40-Hour Work Week

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May 13, 2014

“Our people are our greatest assets.”

We have heard that over and over the past two decades. Check out your company’s website and I bet there is a quote very similar somewhere on the culture or home page.

If you work for a public company, your annual report probably has some type of “people” statement too, yet we continue to see workplace stress increase as we all struggle to handle the overflow of work.

Are we really treating our employees as an asset — or should I say, our most important asset?

Email, technology are driving burnout

Technology only adds to the stress and overload as management can communicate electronically 24×7, and most do.

HR teams are now dealing with the complications of worker burnout never before seen at such high levels. Despite that, companies and organizations continue to push harder and harder every day. Some businesses use terms like “continuous improvement” and “striving for excellence” in their explanation for ever-greater workplace demands.

Employees cannot even take a day off without being hit with 150 emails or 20 voice mails to respond to when they return. Unplugging is no longer an option for many. Books like Tim Ferris’s The 4-Hour Workweek are fun diversions from the reality we live in — but not realistic (except for Tim).

So how do we stop or at least slow down the madness?

Several organizations are now instituting no email weekends, and some even have rules about not sending emails at certain times of the day (or after hours). Others have put in protocols for reasonable response times and even how email should be used.

“We need to work differently”

To me that’s just a Band-Aid. We need to work differently, set boundaries, and simplify conversations.

In my new role as head of HR for Success Academy Charter Schools in New York City, 82 percent of my email the first two weeks were cc’s. I like to be informed, but do I really need to have more than four-fifths of my email to be ass covering or FYI’s?

We are a high performing organization with a really smart and dedicated leadership team, however even high performing organizations are not immune to this situation. In fairness, it was the same at the two previous organizations I worked at the past decade, Marcum and Leviton Manufacturing Corporation (two more successful and very high performing businesses).

The problem is that the average individual’s daily emails have increased from 50 to 200 a day. For senior staff, the number can be even higher. My total as a newbie averages 216 emails day, but wait until folks know I am on board and, without a doubt, that number will increase dramatically.

But, that’s only my work email. also have personal email and part-time job email (from my position as a part-time graduate school business professor). I estimate that I spend more than four hours reading email a day during the week, and another hour plus each day on weekends. That’s 22 hours minimum a week of inbound communication.

Oh, and I have to respond to a portion of them. Lets add another 11 hours a week for responses or writing our own email, and that makes it 33 hours a week at a computer screen typing and reading — and that’s in a good week.

Are we all just drinking the Kool-Aid?

Let’s add time on our phone/PDA for texting and emailing, which adds another 7 to 8 hours a week (and I am not personally a big texting/instant messaging person), now we are up to the proverbial 40 hours a week dealing with email before we actually do anything else.

When I started working for Macy’s in 1985 ,we had no email or cell phones. Guess what? I got my job done in the allotted time.

It was hard work being a junior executive in a major retail business. I even put in 50-60 hour weeks, however I had more time to think and to enjoy my time off then I do today.

I’m trying to set boundaries in my new role by minimizing communication between 7 pm and 7 am with my team in the hopes of modeling this for the organization. It’s hard and I am not sure if I can stop or influence the madness to slow down, however I do want to set an example for others to follow because all the email wears on me and makes me thirsty.

Anyone have some Kool-Aid to drink?