The Real Paul Jones

Accept no substitutes

E-mail as a Source and Symbol of Stress; thus #noemail

What email means is as important as what it does and doesn’t do. That is one of the points of the #noemail project. There are better ways of communication. Those better ways should assist in relieving stress rather than becoming a cultural and individual symbol of overwork and stress.

This paper just out from researchers at Stanford and Boston University does a fine job of quantifying and explaining what email means. May require library access or subscription for access.

I note with some irony that the email addresses of the authors are included in the abstract and in the paper.

Of course, you can “Email This Article to A Friend” or better to an enemy.

Vol. 22, No. 4, July-August 2011, pp. 887-906
DOI: 10.1287/orsc.1100.0573

E-mail as a Source and Symbol of Stress
Stephen R. Barley, Debra E. Meyerson, Stine Grodal

Department of Management Science and Engineering, School of Engineering, Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305
School of Education, Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305
Department of Strategy and Innovation, School of Management, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts 02215

The increasing volume of e-mail and other technologically enabled communications are widely regarded as a growing source of stress in people’s lives. Yet research also suggests that new media afford people additional flexibility and control by enabling them to communicate from anywhere at any time. Using a combination of quantitative and qualitative data, this paper builds theory that unravels this apparent contradiction. As the literature would predict, we found that the more time people spent handling e-mail, the greater was their sense of being overloaded, and the more e-mail they processed, the greater their perceived ability to cope. Contrary to assumptions of prior studies, we found no evidence that time spent working mediates e-mail-related overload. Instead, e-mail’s material properties entwined with social norms and interpretations in a way that led informants to single out e-mail as a cultural symbol of the overload they experience in their lives. Moreover, by serving as a symbol, e-mail distracted people from recognizing other sources of overload in their work lives. Our study deepens our understanding of the impact of communication technologies on people’s lives and helps untangle those technologies’ seemingly contradictory influences.


  1. I found a copy of the paper online at The data for the study was collected in 2001 and 2002, prior to the advent of social networks such as Facebook. It is therefore unable to draw any comparison between email and social networking. The paper cites four primary reasons that email creates additional work and causes so much stress. Those are

    1. It is easier to send email than written letters and memos. This leads to more communications being sent.
    2. Email creates additional work because there is little or no cost associated with making requests. More requests means more work.
    3. Email is used not only for traditional communications but also to keep track of the status of tasks, distribute documents, manage contacts, and organize information.
    4. Email disrupts the recipient’s concentration generating another source of work.

    Strike the word “email” from each of those reasons and substitute “social networking”. Now, re-read each reason and see if it’s still valid with social networking in place of email. They all look valid to me.

  2. Paul

    12/6/2011 at 2:43 pm

    You’re right; it’s out of date. See the chart below which is an article on which you commented. I’m guessing you read it.

    Whilst a word change may look valid to you, studies cited here show you are wrong. “Seems to me” does not allow you to substitute “tiger” for “cat” or “camel” for “cow” or “email” for “social networking” as I’ve documented here.

  3. What studies? The study you cited doesn’t even mention social networking. The chart is a non sequitar. How does it establish that social networking doesn’t suffer from the same stress causing issues as email? All it shows is that social networking has grown enormously while email has declined by 1%. Has a study been conducted to determine if and to what extent social networking causes stress, or that compares the stress caused by email to that caused by social networking?

    Perhaps you’ve already mentioned it in one of your posts. I’m still reading through them, so I apologize if I haven’t gotten to it yet.

  4. Paul

    12/7/2011 at 10:56 am

    Look at the chart again. Look at the dark blue line that indicates “Social Neworking” The chart is about growth and change in communications. When you look at it look at the dates. Note that the study that you capriciously use but an inane and inappropriate substitution of terms is hopelessly dated and doesn’t reflect current communications practices.

    About efficiency of social over email. See any of the Atos or IBM studies. “Beer” is not “Milk;” “email is not “social”

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