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New study finds work emails increase stress and hurt focus

Are you addicted to checking your work email?

Do you check it first thing in the morning and right before you go to bed?

Do you check it on work breaks and even on vacations?

Well, here's a piece of advice: Stop.

According to a new study by researchers at UC Irvine, people who check their work email regularly exhibit higher states of stress, and less focus, than workers who continue to do their jobs while being cut off from email entirely.

The study examined the heart rate of workers at a suburban office outside of Boston. Some of the workers were asked to go about their email-filled days as usual, others were asked to step away from email for a full five-day workweek. The researchers fitted both groups with wearable heart rate monitors capable of taking heart rate measurements second by second.

The workers who abandoned email had a variety of different roles within the organization including managers, administrators, research scientists and technologists, and all of them usually use email during the course of a regular workweek.

The research team, led by UCI informatics professor Gloria Mark, found that people who read email throughout the day were in a steady "high alert" heart rate state, while those who did not check email had more natural, variable heart rates.

Those without email also reported feeling more in control of their work after five days without constantly reading and responding to messages. They also found they had more time to complete work tasks.

And when the experiment was over, most of the people who had been banned from email said they realized that most emails aren't important.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Mark said that for most workers, the idea that we need to be checking email is a myth that we tell ourselves.

"Of course for some jobs it is necessary," she said. For example, one of the people her team studied works in customer service and found it hard to do her job without email.

"But for most of the other people, they discovered just how unnecessary email was," she said.

I asked her if workers should orchestrate their own email vacations -- picking a certain time during the day or even a full day to abandon email.

"I think it's hard for people to be self-disciplined enough to give up email," she said. "But I could see people taking a day off of email if they could afford it, and their supervisor let their colleagues know that this person won't be responding to emails. It would be good for their health."

In December, the French firm Atos made headlines when the company's leadership announced that it would be a zero-email company by 2013.

But Mark said Atos is an exception.

"We're not heading in that direction," she said. "We are heading toward a 2 4/7 connectivity and there would have to be a major disruption for things to change. I hope they do. I think we have gone a little too far without constant connectivity."