Why email is bad for your health

Wondering if you have any new emails? Well, you may want to think twice about checking your inbox.

A new study, carried out by boffins at the University of California, has found constantly looking to see if you have new messages could have an adverse effect on your health.

Scientists who carried out the research attached heart monitors to office workers, finding that if they had access to email throughout the day, they remained in a permanent state of ‘high alert’.

Professor Gloria Mark ran the experiment in which 13 volunteers were hooked up to monitors on days when they had full access to email and then days when they were told they couldn’t log on at all.

Prof Mark said she had expected volunteers to become stressed if they could not check their mail, because she believed people were becoming addicted to email and she would see signs of cold turkey, almost as if they were drug or alcohol users trying to kick their habit.

But, in fact, the opposite was the case. The longer those involved in the test went without email, the less stressed they became.

Explaining her research methods, Prof Mark said: “First, we did a baseline measure. We had them work as usual for several days. Then, we cut off email for five days, continuing to take our measurements.

“We couldn’t see a discernible trend on days one and two but at day five, the pattern started to become clear. People became less stressed after being away from email.”

She found that volunteers, who were all civilian employees at the US Army’s Natick Soldier Systems Centre, outside Boston, were constantly on what Prof Mark described as ‘high-alert’ and showing signs of the ‘fight-or-flight syndrome’ where the body is constantly prepared to respond to some sort of crisis or danger.

Having a constantly raised heartbeat can be dangerous as it leads to high levels of the potentially damaging stress hormone cortisol.

Cortisol can be a good thing in certain situations – when you need a quick burst of energy for survival reasons, for heightened memory or lower sensitivity to pain, for example.

But when your body is not able to return to normal and continues to have high levels of cortisol, it can lead to such problems as high blood pressure, lowered immunity and increased abdominal fat, which is associated with heart attacks and strokes.

Along with reducing potential health problems, Prof Mark found reducing access to email could also lead to higher productivity at work.

Those taking part in her study said they were able to focus on tasks longer without the opportunity to check their messages and, on average, those with email switched windows about 37 times per hour, compared to 18 times for those without.

But Prof Mark said while the subjects of her study said they felt liberated without email, they soon reverted back to their old ways once the research was completed. So it seems we just cannot resist the appeal of the inbox.

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