The curse of email: How personality can impact how, when and why you respond

As I write this blog…


Sorry. Got distracted there. As I was saying…


Sorry. I’ll just switch my emails off.

Sound familiar?

According to research earlier this year, around 269 billion emails get sent, around the world, per day!

No wonder that emails can have such an impact on employee performance – both positive and negative. Which is why it was interesting to read a research article on email interruptions in the September edition of the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology.

This research is important because,

“Understanding how different resources are deployed, spent and valued is imperative if work psychologists and job designers wish to promote work environments that allow individuals to work to their optimal potential and deal with daily demands in effective and productive ways”

The research

The researchers explored the extent to which conscientiousness played a part in managing how and when a person responded to an email interruption. They looked at the patterns of 52 email-users, from a range of sectors, over a half-day period using a method similar to diary observation.

Of particular interest was the impact that conscientious people experienced by resisting email interruption in order to achieve the task at hand. Did a continued focus on the task at hand and a resistance to check the new email impact on the well-being of the individual?

Key concepts

  • Affective well-being (AWB): An important part of psychological well-being that represents the frequency and intensity of an emotional state (positive or negative).
  • Compensatory Control model: This looks at the trade-off between satisfying either task goals or well-being goals, with one being at the expense of the other.  The model was developed by GR Hockey.
  • Conscientiousness: Defined as being organised, hard-working, careful and having lots of self-control.
  • Conservation of Resources (COR) model: Developed by Steven Hobfoll, this model suggests that a resource is anything a person values, such as time, or which protects and build something of value, such as creative ability. Resources sit across a spectrum. At one end are stable resources, which tend to have durability; and at the other there are volatile resources, which tend to be expended quickly.
  • Trait Activation Theory (TAT): The idea that using a personality trait will strengthen rather than weaken it. TAT was devised by Robert Tett and Dawn Burnett.

The findings

  1. People high on conscientiousness take longer to check an email interruption at work after receiving an alert.
  2. How quickly a person with high conscientiousness will check an email after an alert is determined by the perceived level of strain they’re experiencing at that moment in time.
  3. The longer a person takes to check an email following an alert the more likely they are to have reduced affective well-being. This is felt even more so by people who are high on the conscientiousness scale.
  4. People who are high on conscientious scale are no more likely to report greater levels of task goal achievement, when delaying checking their email, than those who aren’t high on conscientiousness.
  5. People high on conscientiousness, who take longer to check an email interruption at work, tend to have lower well-being goal achievement afterward.

Suggestions for organisations and individuals


“Interruptions, unlike distractions or cognitive interference (i.e. daydreaming), afford a task or action in their own right which maybe further compounded by organizational norms to respond quickly to email”

  1. Review email use: Is email the right method to convey what needs to be conveyed? For example, is it something that would be better via phone, or face-to-face? And if email is the best method, are levels of importance being flagged and subject headings clearly outlining what is needed?
  2. Assign a specific time for email: Some of the highest-performing people I’ve come across (both high and low on conscientiousness) have their inbox off for most of the day. This is on their laptops and their phones. Instead they allocate specific time to check their emails – such as 15 minutes first thing in morning, again at mid-day and again at the end of the working day. This helps balance the trade-off between wanting to keep on top of email demands, whilst delivering against other goals.
  3. Turn off alerts when working on a specific task: This can work effectively when in conjunction with the previous suggestion. Remember to turn them off your smartphone as well as your laptop and tablet. By compartmentalising time and managing interruptions, you can better manage the strain and stress you might feel.
  4. Use phone for critical emergency: I’ve known organisations where email has been the main (or only) tool by which an urgent situation is handled. This relies on the people who are needed to sort out the situation to be aware of the email or even to be around. A faster, more efficient approach would be to call the person(s) concerned.
  5. Use rules: I’m still surprised at the number of people I work with who either aren’t aware of or don’t use rules on their email. When I was a busy senior manager I used a rule which put emails, with exceptions for people like chief executive, where I was copied (CC’d) in, in to a separate folder. A message was relayed to the sender saying that this had happened and that I assumed the email was for my info only. If they wanted me to take a specific action then they would need to resend email making clear what they needed me to do and when. Taking this approach means that if you’re using assigned time to check emails, it feels less overwhelming when you do go in to your inbox.

What kind of things do you do to cope with the impact of email interruptions when you’re focusing on another task? Share your ideas in the comments box below.

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