tl; dr

An increase in email traffic constitutes an increase in workload, and viceversa. But what’s key is that email per se is workload. The very awareness of email, and of a known/expected amount of email, implies a cognitive load, and excessive cognitive load is stressful.

The recent HEPI Report on Mental Health in Higher Education shows “a big increase in the number of university staff accessing counselling and occupational health services”, with “new workload models” and “more directive approaches to performance management” as the two main factors behind this rise (Morish 2019).

  • What is our own role in organisational information behaviours that are contributing to feelings of burn-out and exhaustion?
  • What do we need to do differently, and what circumstances do we need first in order to plan for that?
  • How can we foster a culture of collegial engagement with collective tasks, and what are the right technologies to help us achieve that, and which ones aren’t?

An awareness that we all play a role in creating extra workload and most likely stress for others is a good place to start. But it’s only that, a beginning. The real challenge is how to get from awareness of the problem to solutions that go beyond the individual.

 

 

Full-Length Insomniac Version

It’s that time of the year in which I can’t sleep well (or at all) thinking about work. It’s that season when I do more than 10 hours solid (lunch at desk when lucky) in the office, marking, wrangling spreadsheets, emailing, seeing students and doing everything else that I need to do as part of my life as an academic with research aspirations and teaching responsibilities. I know I’m not the only one and I know people who do more than that. I am not gloating nor complaining- it is what it is. (I don’t think this routine should be imitated if you can).

A huge challenge for us working in relatively large organisations is how to fulfill our duties successfully, employing the means provided to us to do them, within the time at our disposal.  I lead a large module taken by all the Postgraduate students from a range of different programmes in a single Department. This year 255 students were registered in the module. (This is not the only thing I do- but it’s the task that motivates this reflection).

Part of my role is to manage the marking of their final coursework, which is marked by 30 different members of staff from across the Department (including me). My challenge as I see it has been to ensure both students and colleagues are aware of what needs doing, how and when and that any essential information is not lost in the ether amongst the hundreds of daily messages and simultaneous tasks and deadline everyone has as well. How to do that briefly, when the tasks and context are complex and must be performed systematically, and how not do contribute negatively to the feeling of overload?

I think a lot about information and about the way we use information technologies in Higher Education and in the workplace. I am often vocal about how email has almost completely taken over all other tasks and modes of working, or at least has come to significantly define them.

It’s not just a question of volume but of mode: enhanced by mobile emailing apps, mobile-and-desktop multi-app integration (for example email-drive-calendar, adding to that platforms like Moodle and their messaging boards) and the multiplication of tasks and individuals and groups one single staff member needs to be in contact with, there is growing usage of email as an instant messaging service or SMS- responses and engagement is often immediate, in real time.

As a result the user experience may be that the pressure or the expectation is that email should always-already be immediate and in real time. Add flexible working and communciation with staff permanently or temporarily based overseas and the email traffic is literally 24/7, every single minute of the 24-hour day.

There are, indeed, strategies to manage expectations, for example through email signature messages (“I work flexibly; I don’t expect you to reply outside your working day”), or out of office messages (the latter also contributing to incoming email) where information is provided about a user’s working context. However, as these strategies are often implemented individually and not systematically across an organisation, they are at best personal disaster mitigation measures.

For too long email behaviour in large organisations has been self-regulated by individuals. Disparities in seniority and hierarchy play a role in who gets to set the expectations, but the whole range of potential expectations is not necessarily, to its full extent, the result of a previously agreed written policy. Essentially, almost every practically significant detail about how organisations should use email is left unsaid and individuals and groups are left most literally to their own devices.

Over time I suppose even large organisations may get to develop their own ways of working that may be more or less satisfactory for their members, but in many in today’s higher education institutions the shared experience of staff (and also students sometimes!) is that there is way too much email, too much information, it’s too easy to miss important information (with serious consequences) and it’s not clear at all how to change things for the better.

The recent Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) Report on Mental Health in Higher Education shows “a big increase in the number of university staff accessing counselling and occupational health services”, with “new workload models” and “more directive approaches to performance management” as the two main factors behind this rise (Morish 2019).

The HEPI report is alarming, not because it documents things we didn’t know, but because many of us in the sector knew those things well. The collective evidence is indicative of a sector-wide issue which is getting endemic across industries. Just three days before the HEPI report was published,  Unite, the UK and Ireland’s largest union, published the results of a survey of over 850 members from 238 organisations revealing an “epidemic of stress related illness and massive mental health issues, among people employed by charities and NGOs.”

It is clear to me that an increase in email traffic constitutes an increase in workload, and viceversa. But what’s key is that email per se is workload. Information overload causes cognitive overload, there is not even a need to open an email, to read it or act on it, for it to already imply a load. The very awareness of email, and of a known/expected amount of email, implies a cognitive load.

Excessive cognitive load is stressful. I am not sure this is recognised most of the times. On the one hand email seems to have become, as I said above, the main way we work today (except when teaching or attending meetings, but not even then, as it’s known lecturers and even committee chairs do email from the lecture theatre or the meeting room). On the other hand, however, email is often perceived as invisible- like ideology, it appears to exist without the need to think of it. Email as an act of nature, as unquestionable status quo, not as a means to an end but as an end that never ends. It’s no longer a tool, but a way of being.

The cycle is then of higher workloads – higher email traffic – higher workload – higher stress. This is a vicious cycle, and it should not be considered to be normal. What must not be forgotten is that for most academic staff emailing is not really the main job- a considerable amount of essential tasks academics perform need to be done outside email, even if all of them will require emailing at some point.

So these are some of the things that keep me awake at night in times like this.

  • What is our own role in organisational information behaviours that are contributing to feelings of burn-out and exhaustion?
  • What do we need to do differently, and what circumstances do we need first in order to plan for that?
  • How can we foster a culture of collegial engagement with collective tasks, and what are the right technologies to help us achieve that, and which ones aren’t?

Central dashboards and project management tools are good ideas, but they don’t work unless they truly substitue email for specific pruposes and do not cause duplication of effort as they can do when they have not been set up and mandated centrally by management policy.

In my own professional experience using online project management tools, unless members go and check the tool themselves an email reminder has to be sent out- and there one of the main goals of using the tool in the first instance is lost.

As we know, the balance between being flexible and being systematic is hard to strike- it’s also really difficult to make sure everyone is on board or on the same page without appropriate organisational information behaviour cultures.

Perhaps beginning with this awareness that we all play a role in creating extra workload and most likely stress for others is a good place to start. But it’s only that, a beginning. The real challenge is how to get from awareness of the problem to solutions that go beyond the individual.


And then that feeling- have I just made it all way worse by writing a long post no one will have time to read?

References

Morish, Liz. (23 May 2019). Pressure Vessels: The epidemic of poor mental health among higher education staff , HEPI Occasional Paper 20. Available from https://www.hepi.ac.uk/2019/05/23/new-report-shows-big-increase-in-demand-for-mental-health-support-among-higher-education-staff/ [Accessed 30 May 2019].

Unite. (20 May 2019). Charity workers suffering an epidemic of mental health issues and stress, survey reveals. Available from https://unitetheunion.org/news-events/news/2019/may/charity-workers-suffering-an-epidemic-of-mental-health-issues-and-stress-survey-reveals/ [Accessed 30 May 2019].