Most academics in universities all over the world benefit from the use of e-mail for workplace communication. Several researchers have pointed out that alongside its positive side effects, e-mail communication has also led to a number of uncertainties as a person-communication technology interference. With some notable exceptions, e-mail stress as one aspect of occupational stress today has relatively few empirical findings.
However, empirical studies have been focused on information overload, and indicate that employees are overwhelmed by the volume of e-mails. For example, in a recent Australian study, Jerejian and his colleagues (2013) found that worry and e-mail volume significantly predicted e-mail stress among academics. Schuurman (2009) found that over 90% of academics check e-mail at least every 2-3 hours during the work-week (over half of those check it every hour or more), and 95% of academics check e-mail always or sometimes on the weekend (most do so always).
The starting point should be to provide a clear, coherent and precise definition of e-mail stress. Unfortunately, this is not a straightforward task. Based on the fact that e-mail stress is mainly work-related stress, it is convenient to consider e-mail stress a specific form of occupational stress. According to the European Commission, "work-related stress can be defined as a pattern of emotional, cognitive, behavioral and physiological reactions to adverse and noxious aspects of work content, work organization and work environment" (European Commission, 1999). On the basis of the European Commission definition, we can define e-mail stress as a pattern of emotional, cognitive, behavioral and physiological reactions to adverse and noxious aspects of work-related e-mail communication.
In the period 2009 -- 2013, studies on occupational stress were conducted in university academics at Tallinn University of Technology (TUT) in the framework of the research project "Occupational stress study and web-based occupational stress prevention system for academic staff of Estonian universities," supported by grant nr 3-8.2/23 from the European Social Fund. Our findings suggest that university teaching is not a low-stress occupation. In studies we identified 90 separable sources of stress in academics at university. Comparing the sources of occupational stress among academics at different Estonian universities, we found minor differences in the intensity of the influence of stressors. An occupational stress profile in university academics followed a similar pattern without statistically significant exceptions in various Estonian universities. Moreover, in a cross-cultural study we found that all 90 stressors were valid and also applied to Bordeaux University academics. We came to the conclusion that the sources of stress were not university-specific and were also not academic culture-specific.
Among a plethora of occupational stressors, our attention was drawn to sources of pressure that could be related to e-mail stress. The aim of the current study was to get a more detailed understanding of e-mail stress in relation to person-communication technology interference. In analyzing stressors, we were guided by the definition according to which stressors or sources of pressure are a wide range of environmental conditions or situations regarding work-related e-mail communication that affect the well-being of employees. Among the 90 separable stressors, there was one specific source of pressure, namely excessive communication and the need to be always "visible" and "available," which matches the definition given above and could be interpreted as e-mail stress. In order to understand the scope of e-mail stress in university, we compared e-mail stress (as a source of pressure, namely the excessive communication and the need to always be "visible" and "available") according to its intensity in different universities, e.g. the percentage of academics that noted a particular source of pressure troublesome. It was found that e-mail stress affects over one third of the academics in each university and a statistically significant difference was not found between the universities. Next, the strength of the inter-relationships between occupational stress factors and e-mail stress was estimated. A strong inter-relationship was found between e-mail stress and workload, as well as professional identity and personal life, which means that e-mail stress affects these areas of academics' lives strongly. In order to find a relationship between e-mail stress and work-family interference we sorted out all the sources of pressure that related to family life. The strongest correlations were between e-mail stress and three sources of pressure associated with family life, namely work tasks and demands not allowing one time to enjoy family life and activities, time-based work interference with family i.e. work problems coming into family life, and the need to work late in evenings or on weekends.
In the second stage of the current study, the focus was on e-mail stress in university academics in more detail. Interview as the qualitative research method was adopted in order to clarify e-mail stress as a source of pressure in university by letting the academics "speak for themselves." The sample consisted of 16 academics and each face-to-face interview lasted 20 -- 35 minutes. The emotionally loaded and extremely candid interviews about virtual communication via e-mail in university served to highlight e-mail stress in university. The interviews showed that e-mail stress most typically occurred on Monday morning. If the person had not checked his e-mails or it was not possible to be online during the weekend, then Monday morning was described in a manner indicating psychopathology.
First, the fear of opening one's own e-mail box on Monday morning (described by 14 interviewees) was the most typical reaction to e-mail stress. The interviewees were worried and afraid of something, e.g. finding among their e-mails some orders or commands what were sent during the weekend. The typical verbal expressions were: "I put off reading my opened e-mails for as long as possible, because I'm afraid that I will overlook something important…," "I'm afraid that on Friday evening someone sent me some commands and requirements for Monday morning…," "I'm afraid that I have missed something important…," "I'm afraid that I have been instructed to work on a weekend with some report…."
Secondly, 12 interviewees described anxiety, negative emotions, and depressive thoughts. Anxiety was described as a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome. The typical verbal expressions were: "I'm afraid to find something unpleasant if I open my e-mail…," "I am not able to get all my work done anyway…," "Everything has speeded up and become an incomprehensible rush…."
The third was paralysis (incl. analytical paralysis), theloss of the ability to react. A person is physically at work but does nothing; he is mentally absent. Replying to what one hears, but not actually absorbing the information (the so-called analytical paralysis) is reflected by the explanations described by 5 interviewees. The typical verbal expressions were: "Perhaps it is not a problem with me…," "I do not know what is going on…," "I do not understand it any more…," "What am I supposed to do…."
The fourth was a decrease of professional identityasa loss of close similarity or affinity, professional inclusion, a feeling of belonging, or a strong feeling of "we" and "our" (described by 4 interviewees). The typical verbal expressions were: "An academic job has totally changed...," "I do not know what job I'm doing any more…."
Changes in the work have blurred the boundaries between work and non-work for academics. Work is not dependent on working hours and the workplace, or even on the location. More than ever the academic's work has become modus vivendi. Higher demands have been established for academics to be "always online," "always ready to react," and "ready to work." Interruptions in non-work time (family, friends, leisure, hobbies etc.) have become common and increase the level of occupational stress.The interviews showed that e-mail stress most typically occurred on Monday morning. Moreover, the results of the interviews show that e-mail stress manifests itself through occupational psychopathology.
- Teichmann, M., Ilvest, J. Jr., Lυhmus, M., Murdvee, M., Dondon, P. Monday morning e-mail syndrome in university. Recent Advances in Telecommunications and Circuit Design, WSEAS Press, 169-174
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