I recently taught several leadership development workshops at the Rutgers Institute for Ethical Leadership based on my new book, The Happy Healthy Nonprofit: Strategies for Impact without Burnout. One of the workshops focused on technology wellness in the nonprofit workplace, more specifically on how to avoid collaborative overload.
Collaborative overload is the burnout that results from our over-reliance on emails, meetings, and other online collaborative technology tools that have, ironically, limited our ability to get stuff done. Part of the reason is that technology has blurred the lines between work time and time off. Another reason is connectivity. As nonprofits become networked and different departments work across silos, we need to interact with more people than ever. While there are many positive aspects to increased collaboration, there’s a downside, too.
In a research report called “Exhausted But Unable to Disconnect,” professors from Lehigh University, Virginia Tech, and Colorado State University found that an “always on” culture may prevent employees from fully disengaging from work, causing stress. Email is a depersonalized channel of communications because you don’t see the effect you’re having on the person receiving the email. The research study found that the expectation of assumed availability is what exhausts people and the anticipation of work creates stress that can lead to burnout.
During the workshop at Rutgers, one participant shared an insight that illustrates the findings of the study. She talked about being out on a Friday night with friends and all of sudden getting an alert on her phone of an after-hours work email. "I glanced at my phone, I saw the notice, and read the email. Within seconds I went from enjoying time off with friends to being on work duty."
There are several ways to address this situation without resorting to moving to France where after-hours emails are illegal. There are some things you can do as an individual:
- Turn Off Email Notifications: If you are receiving emails from work after hours, take the notifications off your phone so you won't be tempted to read them during the weekend. Examine why you are keeping the notifications on. Is it habit, or are you addicted to getting the notice that you have mail?
- Train Your Attention: Maybe you have no intention of “working” when you aren’t in the office, but you have become so accustomed to constant distractions that, regardless of what you are doing, you are mindlessly tapping on your emails, texts, and social media icons on your phone. If your late-night email reading and responding is a bad habit, understand how much time you are spending on your phone by using the app Moment, which gives you a report of usage. Next, focus on training your attention.
- Use Scheduling Programs: If you are the one writing emails at 11:00 p.m. on a Saturday night, try to understand the stress it might be causing the receiver. It also sets up the expectation that your team should respond to them. One technique is to schedule your emails using a program like Boomerang for Gmail or Outlook’s scheduled delivery option.
- Tame Your In-Box: If you are sending or reading after-hours emails because your inbox is out of control, try using programs like Sanebox to keep your email organized.
Organizational Culture Change
A work culture that includes answering emails at all hours doesn’t make your organization more productive. It just makes everyone distracted. When nonprofit staff are constantly monitoring their email after work hours—whether due to fear of missing something from their executive director or out of habit—they are missing out on essential down time that brains need.
Time away from work and being online produces new ideas and fresh insights. Research also shows that taking time for silence restores the nervous system, helps sustain energy, and conditions our minds to be more adaptive. It can also improve your memory.
The metric of how many emails a staff person can answer in a 24-hour period is not a useful indicator of job performance. Your organization should avoid having after-hours email become a cultural norm because it perpetuates stress and steals the motivation and creativity that are important to reaching outcomes.
It is far better to address unhealthy attitudes toward digital communications at your nonprofit by carefully crafting and communicating email guidelines developed with everyone's input. Some nonprofit workplaces have a rule about not sending any emails in the evenings or weekends. And, when after-hours coverage is needed, staff can be assigned to shifts to avoid burning people out. In addition to encouraging staff to stay off of email during the weekends or after hours, here are some other ideas to consider:
- Encourage good email communications guidelines such as brevity, clear asks, and clear subject lines. Here's a good guide to writing precise emails.
- Set up internal chat lines for sharing photos or brief social updates.
- Use retreats as a time for digital detox—stay off email and devices during the retreat meeting.
What are your tips for avoiding stress and burnout from after-work emails?
The preceding is a guest post by Beth Kanter, @kanter. Beth was named one of the most influential women in technology by Fast Company and is the award-winning author of The Networked Nonprofit books. She is an internationally acclaimed master trainer and speaker.