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Glossary - eMail fatigue
by Randolf Richardson, April 1st, 2008

The problem of eMail fatigue is that it creates a feeling of stress resulting from being overwhelmed by high volumes of eMail messages on a regular basis (usually daily).  These pressures are also fuelled by common expectations from legitimate senders that their messages will be dealt with in a timely manner.


Sample screenshot

[Pegasus Mail]

The portion of a screenshot image of an Inbox in Pegasus Mail pictured above demonstrates the source of stress for a user suffering from a severe case of eMail fatigue.

Spam, which contributes to these increased psychological stress levels by victimizing all recipients by stealing their time and resources, is one of the main contributing factors because users are forced to manually filter through what the automated filters may have missed in their Inbox folder(s), and then manually filter again through their Junk folder(s) for legitimate messages that might have been misclassified as spam.

The inclusion of calendars and to-do lists in modern eMail applications further increases the psychological burden because it creates a stronger subconscious perception among users that eMail is being forced upon them.

Ambiguous, inconsiderate, offensive, second-rate, and otherwise inappropriate or incorrect writing styles (which can be difficult to interpret), complicated double-speak (a.k.a., "meta-talk"), and HTML-formatted messages with varying font faces and colours (especially problematic for users with visual impairments) also contribute to these stress levels because such features actually hinder productivity by wasting time.


Serious temporary side-effects that, if left unresolved for too long, can eventually lead to the development of serious long term health problems (one early-warning-sign may include some of the symptoms of cabin fever).  Some of the more obvious short-term side-effects of eMail fatigue include:

  • Noticeable increases in body temperature (very common)
  • Sweating (mostly scalp, ears, and upper body; very common)
  • Mild shaking (from hands/forearms and feet/ankles)
  • Upset stomach (can induce vomiting after meals; rare)
  • Stiffness in neck and shoulders (common, but with many causes)
  • Eczema (usually on hands and fingers)
  • Referring to eMail while talking during sleep
  • Lack of motivation to complete related projects
Recommended reading

Strategies for coping

People devise many strategies for coping with this type of stress without understanding that eMail fatigue is the underlying problem.  Some of the common strategies for coping with eMail fatigue include:

  • Avoiding eMail until later in the day (or some other day)
  • Regularly apologizing for a delayed response when replying
  • Using the telephone instead of sending a long reply
  • Printing eMails then procrastinating on acting on them
  • Filing eMails into folders outside the default view and forgetting about them
  • Regularly passing off responsibility due to minor technicalities
  • Increasingly CCing other parties while gradually drifting off-topic
  • Staging accidental deletions of messages
  • Secretly sabotaging the computer so eMail is temporarily inaccessible

One habit that fatigued users sometimes develop is to subtly resolve matters by eMail with near-empty promises or non-answers that appear, on the surface, to be genuinely helpful.  The result is that all parties think the matter has been handled appropriately until someone relying on an actual solution unwittingly brings the matter to light after its deadline, at which point it may be too late and a real-world opportunity is lost or a preventable scenario becomes unavoidable.  At this point the stress becomes contagious since a number of parties are now affected, but many meetings will ensue, effectively providing temporary relief from eMail for those who are fatigued by it (who also often favour and encourage additional meetings to "make sure the problem gets resolved properly").


Sharing this information

Please do NOT send the link to this document via eMail...

...print a hardcopy and send it by postal mail instead.

There are no straight-forward solutions to this problem (sending spammers on a one-way trip into our Sun is prohibitively expensive and probably illegal), although reducing internal eMail use in favour of other forms of inter-personal communication, and consultation with legitimate time management experts, can at least help to reduce the fatigue factor.  When employees feel less fatigued by their eMail, they can focus better and enjoy higher degrees of job satisfaction, which is always beneficial to a healthier corporate culture.

Generally, people who sleep comfortably and adequately, have loving and supportive families, and passionately enjoy at least one hobby, can cope with the daily stresses in their jobs in ways that are more effective -- this usually eases dealing with problem scenarios more reasonably and realistically partly due to having other [healthy] interests that don't involve eMail.

See also

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