UCI researchers Gloria Mark and Stephen Voida, and Army researcher Armand Cardello, conducted a study of email use in the workplace, and found what should surprise no one: that people who check their email frequently tend to be more stressed than people who deal with their email in batches.
Heart rate monitors were attached to computer users in a suburban office setting, while software sensors detected how often they switched windows. People who read email changed screens twice as often and were in a steady “high alert” state, with more constant heart rates. Those removed from email for five days experienced more natural, variable heart rates.
“We found that when you remove email from workers’ lives, they multitask less and experience less stress,” [Mack said….]
She said the findings could be useful for boosting productivity and suggested that controlling email login times, batching messages or other strategies might be helpful. “Email vacations on the job may be a good idea,” she noted. “We need to experiment with that.”
Mark said it was hard to recruit volunteers for the study, but “participants loved being without email, especially if their manager said it was OK. In general, they were much happier to interact in person.”
Getting up and walking to someone’s desk offered physical relief too, she said. Other research has shown that people with steady “high alert” heart rates have more cortisol, a hormone linked to stress. Stress on the job, in turn, has been linked to a variety of health problems.
Of course, this several days away from email practice really works only if you're in the kind of job where the expectations and pace allow it; but I would not be surprised if you could measure benefits from checking messages only twice a day, rather than constantly.
In my experience, I tend to check my email constantly when I need something that feels like work, or out of nervousness, and doing so feeds the nervousness: if the message I'm waiting for isn't there, that makes me wonder what the Hell is going on. It's no different from pacing the halls, except you burn fewer calories, which you can then spend fretting. (These days, of course, when I get that itch, I tend to turn off the computer and do something else. The need for those constant pokes is a sign that I should be changing my behavior.)
Mark, incidentally, has some of the best article titles in the business ("No Task Left Behind? Examining the Nature of Fragmented Work" is great, but "'Constant, Constant, Multi-tasking Craziness': Managing Multiple Working Spheres" is in a class all its own).