ARE YOU A SLAVE TO E MAIL ?   Mark Newton February blog

Business people’s commitment to providing support and value to clients has backfired – the constant flow of emails has caused strain on their work-life balance. Richard Hattersley investigates how business folk  can stop out of hour emails from ruining their lives.

As Jim approches his 20 year work anniversary he revealed on Any Answers that he’s had enough. He wants out. But this career change is not primarily driven by the profession, per se. Sure, he admits to having a few wobbles in the past but he’s always managed to shake them off. But not this time.

The reason behind Jim wanting out is a common issue: there’s too much change. Namely, it’s the constant stream of emails and being on constant call. It’s wearing him down. “I’m addicted in the sense that I can’t leave my phone alone and can’t stop thinking about incoming messages, so have to answer them,” he wrote on Any Answers. His dream is a simple one: One day he will wake up knowing that nobody will chase him for anything.

Email addiction

He’s not the only one.  We took to Any Answers to confess his email addiction. As soon as an email lands in his inbox, he’d fire off a response, even after hours.

The management of emails is a pertinent subject at this time of year. When so much attention and efforts are spent mining away work, responding to incoming emails – especially when it involves chasing errant clients – is a necessary but time-consuming evil.

And even the time wasted just filing emails makes a dispiriting read. Rod Voyce, founder of Logical Office, said “People don’t realise that filing for 10 minutes a day equals 37 hours a year which is one week of your time.” He added: “If you’re spending half an hour a day, that’s three weeks of wasted time.”

The issue of email burnout has prompted France to usher in the ‘right to disconnect’ employment law. As reported in The Guardian, from 1 January French employers with more than 50 workers will have to create a good conduct agreement, preventing staff from checking out of hours emails. The initiative was introduced by Myriam El Khomri who wanted to tackle the health impact of “info-obesity”.

Burnout kicks in

But business people could be the ones to blame for their ‘always-on’ work culture Carol McLachlan says every time you respond to a client out of hours you create an expectation. “You are confirming that your door is open 24/7,” she said. “You signal that there are indeed no boundaries here and your client responds accordingly.”

With the barriers no longer there and the border between life and work disappears, McLachlan warns that this leads to accountants being “permanently switched on”. Not only will this email attachment affect your work-life balance but its effects are stark on your wellbeing. “How long can that last?” McLachlan asked. “Pretty much until the battery runs down, or in human terms: Burnout kicks in.”

Some firms, though, are making changes to their email etiquette, without damaging client commitment. Practice Excellence-award winners Raffingers knew that it needed to guarantee client callbacks if it was going to build trust with clients. They’d found through talking with businesses that other accountants didn’t return clients emails or call back. Often, the businesses didn’t even know if their accountant had received an inquiry.

Lauren Aston, Raffingers’ marketing manager, told us that everyone in the firm bought into the commitment. “It’s not necessarily that if someone contacts them with a question they’ve got to answer that question straight away,” she said. “It’s acknowledging that call.”

Just acknowledge the email

Raffingers realise that although every email may warrant a response not every email needs an immediate, out of hours reply. “It’s more to keep our clients up-to-date,” said Aston. “And to make sure, if our people can’t answer our questions there and then, to make sure they’ve acknowledged it.”

Knowing you’ve acknowledged your client’s request should reduce the intrusion emails can command on your private lives, once you’ve logged off.

Back on Any Answers,  Brunel admitted to writing replies out of hours, but he refrains from hitting the send button. “[It’s] so best to introduce some time delay and train clients to batch up questions,” Brunel said.

And while Duggimon sometimes bends to the temptation and read emails, he’d rarely respond. “It’s never actually occurred to me that any of them might expect a response there and then, they’re just emailing me when it’s convenient for them and I respond in kind,” he said.

Meanwhile FirstTab is dabbling with an out of office responder. As for the business man, his decision has been a long time coming: “The world is moving,” he said, “and I can’t be bothered to keep up anymore.”