Gloria Mark and Stephen Voida
Informatics professor Gloria Mark, right, and scientist Stephen Voida found cutting off email reduced stress. Steve Zylius / University Communications

Feeling anxious and under the gun because you’re battling an onslaught of incoming email? You’re probably not imagining it.

New findings by Bren School of Information & Computer Science researchers show that eliminating the constant distractions of  work email significantly reduces stress and allows you to focus far better.

Heart rate monitors were attached to computer users in a suburban office setting, while software sensors detected how often they switched windows. People with email changed screens twice as often and worked in a state of steady “high alert” with more constant heart rates. Those removed from email for five days experienced more natural, variable heart rates.

“We found that when you remove email from workers’ lives, they multitask less and experience less stress,” said informatics professor Gloria Mark. She co-authored the study, “A Pace Not Dictated by Electrons,” with UCI assistant project scientist Stephen Voida and Army senior research scientist Armand Cardello. The UCI team is presenting the work Monday, May 7, at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Computer-Human Interaction Conference in Austin, Texas.

Mark jokingly calls it the “zombie” paper because, like zombies, no matter how many times you delete e-mails they keep on coming.

She first thought of doing the work in 2005, after examining multitasking behavior for a couple of years. “The main culprit that people identified as responsible for leading them to multitask was email.”

She was also curious about whether workers would suffer withdrawal symptoms if deprived of their online accounts, similar to addicts quitting drinking or cigarettes. She said the results in that area were not clear, and might warrant further research.

The study was funded by the Army and the National Science Foundation. Participants were computer-dependent civilian employees at the Army’s Natick Soldier Systems Center outside Boston. Those with no email reported feeling better able to do their jobs and stay on task, with fewer stressful and time-wasting interruptions.

Measurements bore that out, Mark said. People with email switched windows an average of 37 times per hour. Those without changed screens half as often – about 18 times in an hour.

She said the findings could be useful for boosting productivity and suggested that controlling email login times, batching messages or other strategies might be helpful. “Email vacations on the job may be a good idea,” she noted. “We need to experiment with that.”

Mark said she had difficulty recruiting volunteers for the study, but “participants loved being without email, especially if their manager said it was OK. In general, they were much happier to interact in person.”

Getting up and walking to someone’s desk offered physical relief too, she said.

Other research has shown that people with steady “high alert” heart rates have more cortisol, a hormone linked to stress. Stress on the job, in turn, has been linked to numerous health problems.

Study subjects worked in a variety of positions and were evenly split between women and men. The only downside to the experience was that the individuals without email reported feeling somewhat isolated. But they were able to garner critical information from colleagues who did have email.

The Army is examining use of smartphones and such applications as email for soldiers on battlefields, said David Accetta, spokesman for the Natick facility’s research and development section. “This data may very well prove helpful,” he said.

Mark has tried going cold turkey without email herself – unsuccessfully. “I lasted half a day,” she says ruefully.