If a BlackBerry featured in your Christmas wish list, you may be in for a stressful 2006. A staggering three-quarters of us find e-mail addictive and it's jeopardizing our health, according to new research. So serious is the problem for one in five people that they fall into a category of e-mailer called "the dependent''. They check for e-mail compulsively and panic when they cannot get access.
Dependents carry out their first e-mail check as early as 6am and may only say goodnight to their inbox at midnight, found the study by Symantec Corporation.
"E-mail can offer us great benefits and aid our working life, but users need to look at the way they use it and the times they access it,'' says Lindsey Armstrong, senior vice president at Symantec.
"E-mail should never be a hindrance,'' says Armstrong.
This may be wishful thinking, given that 2005 saw an unprecedented increase in the number of messages people have to manage. Nearly every company interviewed for the study said the volume had increased by an average of 47 percent. The result is that over half of individuals now spend more than two hours sending and receiving messages, with one in six spending four hours a day -- the equivalent to more than two working days a week. Many people think nothing of checking their e-mails from outside work, even when they're on holiday or off sick.
"There are multiple factors that have helped contribute to the e-mail addiction epidemic we're currently experiencing,'' says Armstrong. "E-mail is now far more than just a communications tool. Individuals use it to manage their diaries and contacts, delegate actions and even treat it as a formal record of events.''
Internal e-mails have become a common feature of today's blame culture: "Didn't you see the e-mail I sent you last week? It was all there,'' is a regular retort among people who seek to cover their backs by copying the world and his wife into every message they send.
"E-mail has become a whole new playground for machiavellian managers to stir up all kinds of trouble,'' says business psychologist Andrew West. "People wind up feeling they have to constantly check their e-mails to save face.''
He says our love/hate relationship with e-mail can make it difficult to switch off.
"There is a comfort factor in getting e-mails, a feeling that people like you enough to send you them. But ones you don't want can fill you with trepidation. It's a very contradictory relationship,'' West says.
E-mail has been found to be a major catalyst for workplace stress. One survey found that our addiction to it is so great that as little as 30 minutes without access causes most users to become irate.
"The fact that the working day is being stretched by the need to manage the growing volume of e-mails and that many people feel they can no longer escape from work even when they get home is also bad for our health,'' says Guy Bunker, chief scientist at Symantec.
Employers lose out, too, he says. "When a new e-mail arrives in your inbox, a typical response is to read it and even reply to it. That breaks our concentration from what we were doing and there is a lot of lost productivity as a result.''
Michael Hulme, director of the Center of Media, Technology and Culture and a professor at Lancaster University in England, adds: "People often respond to e-mails when not in the right frame of mind -- perhaps it's late at night or they're out of the office -- and they make work-based decisions that are hurried or inappropriate.''