Page last updated at 00:10 GMT, Friday, 7 March 2008

E-mail is ruining my life!

By Ben Limberg
BBC Money Programme

Two million e-mails are sent every minute in the UK. That is almost three billion each day. But what is the real cost of this information overload?

Blackberry user checking his e-mails
E-mail on the move adds to workers' stress levels

We can spend up to half our working day going through our inbox, leaving us tired, frustrated and unproductive.

A recent study found one-third of office workers suffer from e-mail stress.

And it is expensive, too. One FTSE firm estimated that dealing with pointless e-mails cost it 39m a year.

Now firms are being forced to help staff deal with the daily avalanche in their inboxes. Some hire e-mail consultants, while others are experimenting with e-mail free days.

Ray Tomlinson is not a household name, but perhaps he should be. Ray was responsible for the e-mail revolution.

In 1971, he developed the code that enabled him to send an e-mail between two computers for the first time.

He says: "I do feel proud of this accomplishment. In some sense it was such a simple thing to do at the time, but it has had ramifications through many people's lives. What I didn't anticipate is how fast it would grow once it started growing."

Paperless pioneer

Ray's aim was to make it possible to communicate between computers.

"At the time, it was possible to send messages to other users on the same computer, and because these computers were expensive they had many, many users, typically in the hundreds," he says.

"And so you could send it to a user on the same computer but not on a computer elsewhere."

His creation was a short, 200-line programme, to which he added the @ symbol.

Ray Tomlinson
Spam is a problem... there just seems to be an endless stream of it
Ray Tomlinson

"The @ sign was an obvious choice to me anyway, because what I was looking for was a character that I could put between the name, or the login name of a person, and the name of the computer that he was on.

"The @ sign, at least in English, means 'at'. It's a preposition, it designates where this person is in some sense, and so it was kind of an obvious choice."

Electronic mail was born. Businesses realised the potential of this paperless, near-instant form of communication.

And changing the way we communicate changed the way we worked.

This technology also has its downside. It's too easy to write an e-mail and hit the send button.

Is e-mail the appropriate tool for collaborative working?

And when an e-mail goes wrong, it can be around the world in 80 seconds and headline news the next day.

On average, we spend 52 hours a year just dealing with our junk mail.

That's not something that Ray Tomlinson anticipated. "Spam is a problem," he admits.

"Some people unfortunately have been hit with a form of spam in which there just seems to be an endless stream of it coming in - and that is unfortunate."

Cutting down

Professor Cary Cooper advises the government on stress in the workplace. Britons take 14 million sick days due to stress every year. He believes e-mail is a major source of employee anxiety.

"E-mail inboxes are causing employees concern, because of the number of e-mails and the poorly written e-mails. They really want to find some sort of solutions for these problems," he says.

"We are 24/7, we are interfaced by the mobile phone, by Blackberrys, by e-mails, by a whole range of technologies, so that we are almost on call all the time.

Computer keyboard
It can be hard to keep your e-mails under control

"For me, e-mail is one of the most pernicious stressors of our time."

City accountancy firm Deloitte found its employees had a problem with e-mail overload.

So it came up with a radical solution.

"A lot of people complain they get too much e-mail, that they're swamped with it, a lot of the messages they receive are unwanted, unnecessary targeted to the wrong people," says Mary Hensher, who heads Deloitte's IT department.

"We all tried to see if we could avoid sending internal e-mail on a Wednesday. Now the first thing that happened was it got everybody talking.

"Everybody started to think about what they were sending, who they were sending it to and whether they could use another method instead of sending the e-mail. So it had a very good immediate response, where people were actually thinking more about what they were doing."

E-mail is so ingrained in our working lives that Deloitte's experiment was abandoned after only a month. But the company still thinks it was worth it.

"Although the e-mail free day is not an e-mail free day any more, the actual amount of internal email circulating has dropped, because people are more conscious of what they're sending," Ms Hensher says.

If I'm out for the day I will receive around 80 e-mails.
Bigjeeze, Bournemouth, UK

Top tips

One man that might have the answer to all the problems surrounding e-mail is Loughborough University's Dr Tom Jackson.

He has spent the last nine years researching and developing better e-mail practice and has five tips he believes can help you take control of your inbox:

  • Invest in a spam filter. You shouldn't open a spam e-mail, because as soon as you open the e-mail up, it notifies the organisation that has sent that, saying this is a valid e-mail address. They know how long you've looked at it, when you looked at it and did you go back to it.
  • Target your e-mail. One of most annoying things about e-mail is the sheer number of messages we receive that aren't addressed primarily to us. Does everyone in the cc box really need to be copied in on your words of wisdom? Basically, a cc is there for information purposes only, and you should only use it for that purpose.
  • Write more carefully. The reason to write carefully is crystal clear. It just vastly increases the chance that whatever it is you want to get done will get done. If you don't write carefully, there's room for misunderstanding.
  • Reduce interruptions. I think it does start to stress people out. Simply by changing the way they have their e-mail application set up, they can start to reduce some of that stress.
  • Get training. E-mail seems like common sense. Anyone can write an e-mail. But the issues we're having are that many people are struggling with e-mail communication - and training can really help with that.

The Money Programme: E-mail is ruining my life! BBC2 at 1900 on Friday, 7 March.

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