How to tame your inbox

In our series of blog posts on the topic of email, we’ve outlined why and how email can simultaneously be a great communication tool and a source of frustration and stress.

You’ve probably experienced this at some point at work; taking a deep breath before opening your email application, or worrying about how your inbox will look when you return from holiday. You may have felt a twinge of anxiety as you hear a late night email notification, or the guilt of lying in bed at night, emailing your clients rather than sleeping.

So what can you do about it?

Research into how people use email, including our own recent ‘You’ve got mail!‘ project, has indicated that email can be a source of stress for many people. In part, this is due to the sheer volume of emails we receive, but it’s also due to our email-related behaviours and the way we think about email in the first place.

In terms of behaviours, people who check their email very early in the morning and/or very late in the evening report higher levels of email-related pressure. If this sounds like you – if you check your email before you’ve even had a coffee in the morning – it might be useful to consider whether you absolutely need to check your emails at this time. Yes, some jobs require you to do this, but most don’t if we’re honest with ourselves.

Have you developed a habit of checking and writing emails first thing in the morning or last thing at night? It might be more useful to start or end your day with something that doesn’t make you feel more stressed. How about planning your day and prioritising your work, before the priorities of others flood your inbox? Or even better finish your evening with a relaxing activity unrelated to work.

Indeed, there is some evidence that the blue light emitted by smartphones and tablets can disrupt your sleep. Another good reason to keep your email inbox ‘closed’ later in the evening.

You may also be contributing to your stress levels by leaving your email application on all day and/or using ‘push’ email, where the messages are sent to your smartphone without you checking for them. We found that both of these factors are associated with higher feelings of email pressure.

So you might find it useful to turn off your email app while you concentrate on something else. It may also be healthy to think about whether you really need your emails ‘pushed’ to you. Changing this setting is now pretty simple on most smartphones.

How about experimenting with these small changes and seeing how it feels after a couple of weeks?

It matters what you think

When it comes to how you think about email, do you associate it with pressure and do you have strong emotional reactions when reading the messages in your inbox? You may be falling into one of the mental traps psychologists call ‘thinking errors’.

Picture this example. You see a colleague’s name appear in your inbox and you instantly feel frustrated and angry. You might be guilty of ‘mind-reading’ if your emotions are based on what you ‘know’ the other person ‘really’ means by their message. Are you going to add telepathy to the list of skills featured on your LinkedIn profile? Probably not, because you can’t really read minds, so it’s healthier not to even try.

If you feel a compulsion to stay on top of your email and respond to every message even when it’s not required, you might be placing some ‘demandingness’ on yourself. This is the thinking error characterised by an inner voice that says ‘I must…’ or ‘I need…’ or even ‘I should…’. Challenge this kind of self-talk and consider whether it is useful to spend time checking your email, when you could be focusing on your other priorities.

Email behaviour and thinking often combine to form one habit many of us are guilty of: multi-tasking. We try to complete one task (e.g. a telephone call) while absent-mindedly working on another – reading our emails. The reality is, were not multi-tasking, we’re just doing two things badly. Focus on one of these things at a time and the quality of your work will improve and you’ll feel less stretched.

A final thought, and one many of us forget from time to time. If we want to receive fewer emails, we might want to start by sending fewer emails and responding to more of them using another method. Think twice before sending your next message as you may well be contributing to someone else’s nightmare inbox!

Why one-size-fits-all solutions don’t work for email

It’s the end of a long working day full of meetings and, just before you leave your office, you realise you haven’t responded to an email from a key client. Feeling slightly guilty, you head back to your desk and spend the next few minutes writing them an apology and answering their various questions. Breathing a sigh of relief, you hit ‘send’, only to see a message pop up on screen: ‘Emails cannot be sent from this account after 6pm. Access will be restored at 9am’.


In our last two blog posts, we explored the pros and cons of email in the contemporary workplace. We’re definitely not alone in noting how it can both help and hinder us at the same time. Over the last few years, organisations have sought to better understand the impact email can have, and put in place policies to improve the situation.

Some notable news stories in recent times have described large organisations limiting employees’ ability to send or receive emails after a certain point in the evening. These were instigated with the best of intentions: to stop employees’ personal lives being impacted by emails after working hours. But as the fictional scenario above illustrates, it doesn’t always end well.

The main problem with these initiatives is that they don’t work for everyone. Time-based email rules assume that everyone works to the same schedule and in the same way. It assumes a one-size-fits-all solution will work when, as we know, email is an area where one size definitely doesn’t fit all.

Think about it. What about the working parents who wanted to leave the office slightly early, spend time with their young children and then finish off emails in the early evening? Fixed time email access doesn’t work for them. What about the frequent business traveller who finds herself unable to productively use email while sitting in a hotel room far away from home? What about employees who want to support a colleague or client in a different time zone, even if it’s after working hours? Again, a one-size-fits-all approach just doesn’t work.

Another practical downside with this approach is that it doesn’t stop people writing emails, just sending them. So employees continue to write and write and then send them just as soon as the server allows the next morning. Result? A glut of emails arriving in everyone’s inboxes first thing in the morning. Not a great start to the day, right?

This top-down approach to email management won’t work because it essentially sends out the message ‘We know what’s best for you’, when it can’t account for individual working practices and preferences. It can also lead to all kinds of unintentional consequences like mountains of early morning emails – or rushing to send emails before the evening ‘window’ closes. For every unhelpful rule imposed from above, employees will find some kind of workaround.

So what’s the alternative?

Well, as we discussed in our previous blog post, a lack of email norms within organisations is frequently cited as a problem. What kind of norms? For example: when to send an email, rather than pick up the phone. How quickly to respond to different kinds of emails. What kind of information is best shared electronically and which deserves a face-to-face meeting. Establishing norms and clarifying expectations takes a lot of the guesswork out of managing emails.

So, rather than constructing rigid rules to control email use, organisations might get a better result by investing time in clarifying norms and expectations and setting principles for good, effective and healthy email use.

This would help those working flexibly, those in receipt of late night emails and those in contact with colleagues and clients on the other side of the world. Which is what email is really all about when you think about it: flexible communication.

What kinds of norms would you like organisations to clarify for employees? Let us know in the comments below.

And look out for our next posts in this series, when we’ll set out our recommendations for how individuals and organisations can take specific action to improve their email situation.

A double-edged sword: the pros and cons of email

Picture this – an empty email inbox. How do you feel about that? Relieved? Worried? Skeptical?

As we’ve noted before, email plays a big part in many people’s working lives. It can definitely be our friend – but why then can it also be such a painful activity for some of us? Research from the last twenty years has shown that, like most communication tools, email can be used for good or bad. Our literature review of this area revealed that email is perceived both positively and negatively at the same time – hence our reference to it being a ‘double-edged sword’ in our research report, You’ve got mail!

We were eager to make sense of this strange relationship, so we decided to take a closer look at some of the pros and cons of email.

The pros

Unlike its earliest origins, we can now access email from a multitude of devices, meaning we’re not tied to a single desktop computer. Email also gives us one more communication channel to use at work, perhaps for when a message is simple and needs to be sent quickly, or when the recipient isn’t available for a phone call. We can also review emails sent at a time that suits us, rather than receiving a constant stream of phone calls. Email provides us with both flexibility and convenience.

Email also makes it easy to reach a large audience concurrently with an identical message or to share large volumes of information with a specific audience. This can simplify communicating a message or gathering feedback on a topic, and is particularly useful within organisations when arranging phone calls or meetings with so many colleagues would be both time-consuming and inefficient.

Email is sent quickly and arrives in the recipient’s email inbox almost instantaneously. It’s definitely faster than ‘snail mail’, especially when we’re communicating with people over large geographical distances. These days, we can get information to a colleague in Beijing as fast as we can to one in Birmingham!

We can review previously received emails to check who said what and when, helping to remind us of key decisions and how we arrived at them. This written audit trail can be much more reliable than our memories of face-to-face conversations, where various parties can ‘re-remember’ or misinterpret what actually happened.

The cons

On the other hand, each of these advantages could also be seen as a disadvantage – which is why we talk about it being a double-edged sword. You’ve been on the receiving end of a ‘reply all’ email, right? They might be convenient for your colleague, but they’re a chore for you and many others who’ve been thoughtlessly copied in. And just because you’ve sent someone lots of attachments and background information doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve understood or even read them.

So, what do people complain about most it in terms of how email is used?

The general lack of email norms and expectations. For example, without clear guidance within the email, how do I know what kind of response you require, if any? And how urgent is this? Organisations frequently fail to establish these norms, which means that all kinds of unhelpful behaviours can take over. If my manager has sent me an email over the weekend, does this mean she expects me to be reading them? And responding?

Unlike face-to-face communication, or even video conferencing, email lacks non-verbal cues. This makes it easier for us to misinterpret the purely written communications we get in our inbox. Sarcasm or humour are both difficult to identify when we can’t see the sender’s facial expression, which can lead to all kinds of problems. It’s also possible that email is too spontaneous. Who else has sent an email in anger, or later realised they’d misinterpreted the sender’s message? We can respond instantly – but should we? Unlike in a face-to-face conversation, we can’t self-correct when we notice we’ve made an error – unless we want to send another email.

A common complaint about email is the sheer volume we receive. Unfortunately, it seems its widespread use, speed and convenience have combined to increase the number of emails we receive daily. At it’s most benign, a large volume of emails can distract us from our priorities. The feeling of email overload is a common experience, one that can lead to frustration and stress. And that moves email to something beyond an annoyance.

So, email is far from perfect – but you intuitively knew that, didn’t you? So what can we do about it? Watch out for the next few blog posts in this series, which will explore what both individuals and organisations can do to tame the email beast.

Friend or foe? How do you feel about email?

Blue-email-280pxEmail is a big part of our lives. Since its creation in the 1970s, its growth has been unprecedented, facilitating quick and easy communication between individuals across borders and time zones, for both business and personal use.

But despite its widespread usage and popularity as a communication tool, for some individuals and employers, it can be a source of major frustration, anxiety and lost productivity. As the volume of email continues to rise, many of us are feeling the impact – struggling to prioritise work effectively and constantly being interrupted by the flow of messages and demands, resulting in decreased productivity and stress.

At the Future Work Centre, we’re interested in understanding how technology impacts our working lives. So, when we started to consider topics for our first year’s research focus – Technology at Work – it came as no surprise that top of the team’s list was email. Which incidentally, we discussed via email!

‘How can I keep on top of my email?’ is a question we’ve often heard at work – and one we’ve even asked ourselves. Advice on how to ‘manage’ email more effectively is not in short supply – but have you ever wondered if any of it actually works or why you sometimes get conflicting opinions?

One thing that workplace research has demonstrated over the last fifty years, is that it’s very rare for one solution to suit all employees. This has never been more true as how and where we work is changing, as well as the diverse nature of the workforce itself.

We chose to focus on email because of its challenging nature. The power to make work easier and more efficient, combined with the power to distract, upset and stress – a double-edged sword if you like. Given its widespread use, we believe that, like all tools, it should be used appropriately for best results.

We conducted a survey of c2,000 people across a variety of industries, sectors and job roles in the UK, in order to understand how email both facilitates and negatively impacts the employee experience. We investigated whether factors such as technology, behaviour, demographics, work-life balance and personality play a role in our perceptions of email pressure and consequently in our coping strategies.

To read our findings and advice on improving the experience of email, download our research report, You’ve got mail!.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll explore the impact of email further through a series of blog posts. We’ll look at the research that helps us make sense of it, along with some advice for individuals and organisations on how to use email most appropriately.

In the meantime, let us know what you think about email in the comments section below. Is it your friend or your foe?

What the Miracle on the Hudson can teach us about making better decisions

FWC Launch Event-002

Remember Chesley Sullenberger?

He was the pilot who safely landed a passenger plane on the Hudson River, saving the lives of all 155 passengers and crew on board. And as Professor Frank Bond told delegates at our launch event, No More Blind Faith – Just the Facts, he did it by making good use of all the available evidence. In other words, he took an evidence-based approach.

In his 42-year career, Sullenberger had researched catastrophic risk management, written accident reports, completed formal and informal training and, of course, flown a lot of planes. So when US Airways Flight 1539 struck a flock of geese, damaging the engines, he was able to call upon a wealth of scientific, professional and experiential evidence as well as his and his organisation’s values to help him make a decision.

No more blind faith – just the facts

That was just one of the great stories to emerge at the event, which aimed to help delegates use evidence to make better decisions about people and work – a core part of our mission of making work better for everyone.

Over the course of a sunny July morning, an academic and a practitioner shared their perspectives on why evidence matters and how to use it, and how to overcome barriers. The two experts – Professor Frank Bond, director of the Institute of Management Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London, and Wayne Mullen, senior director of global leadership and capability at an online gaming company – then joined our insight director Dr Richard MacKinnon for a lively and interesting panel discussion.

Delegates left the event armed with lots of insights and advice, including:

  • Not all evidence is created equal: there often isn’t enough of it, it isn’t diverse or clear enough and we don’t judge it critically for its quality or relevance, or use it in a systematic way.
  • Assessing the evidence in front of us means adopting a mindset of ‘enlightened scepticism’: who’s done this research, and with which population? How’s it going to relate to me, in my context?
  • There’s no one-size-fits-all approach or universal truth: evidence applicable in one organisation could be less useful in another.
  • Gathering and assessing scientific evidence is just one part of the process – there’s also room for using your professional judgement.
  • Taking an evidence-based approach can sometimes be challenging, time-consuming and hard to sell to your stakeholders. But it’s far more likely to give you the outcome you want.

Richard MacKinnon said: ‘I’m delighted we attracted such an enthusiastic and interested audience for this morning’s launch. A big thank you to everyone who came along and contributed to what I hope will be an ongoing debate on the importance of evidence-based practice.

‘We managed to cover the academic and practitioner perspectives on this topic, as well as share some of our own initial research findings. My sincere thanks to Professor Frank Bond and Wayne Mullen for their excellent contributions and support.’

Want to know more? Download the panel discussion

Why making work better for everyone is a two-way street

Welcome to our new website.

It’s home to what we know about work and how to make it better for everyone. But it’s a two-way street. To achieve our mission – of making work better for everyone, now and in the future – we need your help.

That’s why, for this website, we asked some of you on the street what work means to you. It’s also why we’ll be inviting you to get involved in our own research, and asking the occupational psychologists among you to comment and collaborate with us.

In return for your help, we’ll share the results of our research openly, together with the tools you’ll need to take action. And we’ll do it through interactive, engaging events, as well as articles, blogs and films.

We’ll also help organisations to make better decisions about people and work, and develop the next generation of occupational psychologists in the UK.

So bookmark this website and keep checking back for updates – it’s going to be a busy few months!

Is it you we’re looking for?

Applications are now open for early-career psychologist roles at the Future Work Centre – could one of them be yours?

Imagine a role where, from day one, you’re doing nothing but psychology. Where you embark straightaway on a three-year structured development program to teach you the skills and experience organisations are looking for. And where you get to apply what you’ve learnt to both client projects and an independent research agenda (and get paid for the pleasure).

That’s what our psychologist roles are offering the right candidates. That’s people who:

  • have a BPS-recognised MSc or PhD (or will have by September 2015)
  • are passionate about psychological science and keen to become a chartered psychologist
  • are prepared to work with clients around the UK

Sound like you? Visit our careers page today.

Applications are open from now until 21st June.





What does work mean to you?

‘Work means getting the job done in a fun way.’ ‘It defines who I am.’ ‘It’s a way of making money but it’s also a passion.’

These are some of the answers we got when we took to the street to ask people two questions: what does work means to you, and why is it important?

The resulting vox pops show how varied people’s attitudes are to what they do for a living. For some, work is just a means to an end. But for others, it’s a passion they feel lucky to get paid for.

At the Future Work Centre, our mission is to make it mean something good for everyone.

We do this by carrying out research and sharing the results openly and for free, together with the tools you’ll need to take action. But when “work” is such a huge and complex topic, how do we know where to start?

We’ve developed a simple model to help us. It describes, in four parts, the things that make up the world of work. And it’s at the heart of everything we do. To read more about it – as well as watch the vox pops – click on World of Work at the top of this page.

What does work mean to you? Tell us in the comments!

The secret of making successful decisions

We live in the age of information. Technological and scientific advancements mean that we’re increasingly bombarded with suggestions about how to make improvements to our lives. Yet these suggestions often seem to differ or conflict. With an abundance of information, how do we know which suggestions to give credence to, and which to act upon?

Organisations face the same challenges. Their decision-makers understand the need to make sound and effective choices about how to allocate limited resources. And the decisions they make have profound implications for employees and society. But those decisions are undoubtedly complex, and often, the people making them don’t have a clear view of all the factors in play.

This is understandable. Decision-makers often have to navigate challenging and pressurised organisational contexts, and act quickly to deliver results. While no one sets out to make a bad decision, a large amount of research has shown that even the best decision-makers often make hasty and inaccurate ones – because they haven’t taken the time to consider and evaluate a wide-range of evidence. What’s more, the factors and outcomes of organisational decisions – such as leadership, engagement and culture – may be intangible and difficult to measure. As a result, decisions and actions are often guided by what’s been done in the past, or what others in the industry are doing, rather than by evidence that’s grounded in the immediate organisational context.

At the Future Work Centre, we want to help organisations to make better, more effective decisions about their people by taking an evidence-based approach. This means asking the right questions, and balancing different types of evidence (such as existing organisational data, people’s experiences, published research and insights into the psychology of people at work) before reaching conclusions.

To do this, we apply our skill and expertise as occupational psychologists and researchers in organisations to design robust programmes of research. We go beyond measurement, helping organisations to understand the meaning of the evidence and how it speaks to them as an organisation and as individuals.

In other words, we find out what works, in what way, and for whom. And that results in decisions that work, too.

To find out more, visit ‘What is an evidence-based approach?

What is occupational psychology?

What is occupational psychology?

Dr Richard A. MacKinnon, insight director

Working as a psychologist, one of the most frequent questions I get asked by people (aside from ‘Can you tell what I’m thinking?’) is ‘What do occupational psychologists actually do?’

First, let’s put to rest any images of the “patient” lying back on a couch and telling the “therapist” all about their dreams and their childhood. This is not that kind of psychology.

Simply put, occupational psychology is the branch of psychology that studies people at work. This specialism is interested in what people think, feel and do when it comes to work – from careers and dealing with change to benefiting from training and coping with stress.

Occupational psychologists tend to specialise in one particular area, but they all use common scientific methods, which is what makes them psychologists. It’s worth noting that they don’t always refer to themselves as “occupational” psychologists and sometimes use the terms “industrial” or “business” psychologist instead.

Here are five examples of what occupational psychologists might do:

  1. Help people just starting their careers to identify what interests them and to prepare for the application process.
  2. Help organisations to recruit the right people by developing psychometric questionnaires or writing interview questions.
  3. Organise work into discrete, coherent and rewarding jobs.
  4. Design the work environment to make people as productive and happy as possible.
  5. Coach people through changes and challenges in their careers.

As you can see from these very brief descriptions, occupational psychology is an incredibly interesting and varied profession and one that has the potential to affect more people than any other psychological discipline. After all, there are about 30 million of us at work in the UK right now. Many tens of thousands are looking for employment, with thousands more leaving the education system to find work each year.

Our fundamental goal as occupational psychologists is to make the interaction between the person and the job as rewarding, productive and enriching as possible. This benefits the employee, the team, the organisation and society as a whole. You can’t ask for much more than that!

Is there something you’d like to know about occupational psychology?

Ask us in the comments!