• Paul McGovern

How software you already use can improve mental health at work

Updated: Aug 27, 2021

Email can be an excellent way to really mess with someone’s mind. The devastating switch in an email chain from “Kind Regards” to “Regards” when signing off is a magnificently passive-aggressive way of signalling extreme displeasure. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is famous for sending emails consisting only of a question mark, sparking a flurry of panicked activity from eager-to-please senior execs.

I used to play my own email game. As a junior doctor doing research, I worked for a boss who was both a good guy and a machine. Before a day’s operating, he’d get up at 5am and do research emails. I couldn’t compete with this. To compensate for my own inadequacy, I’d finish reviewing whatever manuscript draft I was working on in the evening, then I’d go and have something to eat before going to bed. I’d only click send just before I turned the lights out. I could get my send-time as late as 1:30am sometimes, which was somehow reassuring when I saw that it had been replied to less than four hours later. I felt that I was holding up my end of the deal – burning the midnight oil, showing dedication to the cause.

My boss did not encourage this – he never said he expected me to work at odd hours, never indicated he was impressed with my stupid email policy. He was a great person to work for, but I had created this approach myself because I thought that’s what trainee orthopaedic surgeons do. As I found out though, this is not sustainable. I was sleep-deprived and knackered, which itself ruins your life.

The scourge of the late-night email has prompted some employers to ban out-of-hours communications. This is laudable but might not suit everyone – people with young kids may prefer to catch up at night and nap during the day. Organisations which run 24/7 or which work across time zones may also not be able to make this work. Even so, France now has legislation to try to counter the insidious spread of work into all areas of life.

It's clear that the COVID pandemic has made things worse. The graph below shows the explosion in internet traffic after COVID lockdowns, and this study quantifies what we all know – email use and videoconferencing has shot up.

Videoconferencing on Zoom/Teams and the like has kept the economy going and changed the way we work, but at a cost. Meetings through a screen are tiring – it’s harder to pick up on non-verbal cues, and having your own face staring back at you as you talk to others is weird and stressful. This study indicates that even though people think their communication is unaffected by an audio delay (like you get with Wi-Fi issues), others speaking to them perceive them as “less friendly, less active, less cheerful, less self-efficient, less achievement-striving, and less self-disciplined.” Multiply that effect across ten people in a virtual room and you get a seriously compromised conversation.

Add to that the fact that in the before-COVID time, you’d have natural pauses between meetings as people went to the toilet, got a coffee, switched meeting rooms or just caught up with someone in a corridor, and it’s easy to see why a day of back-to-back Zoom meetings leaves you feeling like you’ve had your soul sucked out of you.

What can we do about this?

It’s tempting to see this as a senior management problem, something to be dealt with by the top brass. But anyone in any sort of management or leadership position can have a substantial impact on the people in their team, improving productivity, mental health and engagement. Underlying this is the need to recognise that power dynamics in the workplace have a huge impact. If your boss sends emails at 3am, it signifies that they want you to do the same. It is unfortunately no mitigation whatsoever to stick a disclaimer in an email signature saying “I work at unusual times, I don’t expect a response outside working hours.” When an employee fires up their laptop at 9am and sees that their boss (or even a peer) was beavering away 6 hours earlier, it creates stress. It feeds into a perception that the culture is one in which people are supposed to give everything to the cause, that they don’t need a personal life, that work comes above everything else.

Whether or not this is the intention doesn’t matter. “Do as I say, don’t do as I do” is not widely known to be a successful leadership model, and we learn how workplace cultures work largely by modelling the behaviour of others (and managers in particular), not by reading employee handbooks and email signatures.

Outlook tip one – schedule smarter

Avoiding back-to-back videoconferencing meetings is easy. If you schedule meetings, you have a great deal of control over people’s time – all you have to do is set meeting times to start at five past the hour, and finish at five-to. An hour-long meeting becomes 50 minutes, a half-hour meeting becomes 20. Don’t worry about not having enough time – there is nothing that can’t be achieved in a 20 minute meeting that needed the extra time if the meeting is well run. Add to that the benefit of having attendees who have had a break, taken a breath, aren’t holding in a gallon of urine and have been able to top up their caffeine and blood sugar, and you’ll get much more productive, useful, interesting and engaging meetings anyway. It’s as simple as setting the meeting time appropriately on Outlook, or whichever calendar app you use.

Don’t try to achieve this by shortening meetings by 15 minutes, running them from, say, 2pm to 2:45. Someone will just put a ‘quick catch up’ in that 15 minutes, negating the benefit.

Outlook tip two – schedule send

For those late-night emails (if that’s how you work best), all you need is schedule send. This isn’t quite the freebie that scheduling meetings can be. There is something of a sense of loss experienced by the sender of the 3am email, when they schedule their email to go at 9am. Nobody knows the sorrow they’ve seen. They feel normal, not exceptional. They cannot one-up their colleagues with email timestamp superiority. A loss, for sure, but one which is more than made up for. The recipient gets the email and does not start their day with a little inoculation of inferiority-panic. They feel less tempted to check their work email at weekends. They unwind better. They are happier. They probably take less time off sick. Everyone wins.

COVID-19 has not finished with us yet, not by a long shot. Even if and when infection rates come down and stay down, the burden of ill-health will continue to build for years. People have been bereaved, not been able to access mental health support, experienced job uncertainty, worked in tiny rooms with their partner too close to them, felt lonely and isolated, and are still suffering from COVID and long-COVID. Investment in healthcare will be needed to maintain productivity and minimise the social and financial burden of ill-health. But it’s not just policymakers and CEOs who have an opportunity to make a big difference to workforce health.

Use schedule send, and time your meetings to give people a moment to breathe. It will give people a tangible improvement in their quality of working life. It will improve productivity. And it will help shift the working culture to one that recognises that people are at their best when they can rest, recuperate and recharge.

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