While it may seem essential to constantly reach for a smartphone and check for important emails, people who frequently scan their inboxes are more likely to feel stressed throughout the day, a new study finds.

"It's probably not good for your stress level if you check your email constantly," says Kostadin Kushlev, a PhD student at the University of British Columbia's psychology department and the lead researcher of the study, published in Computers in Human Behaviour.

"It's almost like this addictive behaviour where you're constantly task switching between what you're doing and the next email that comes in."

Kushlev and a group of UBC researchers recruited 124 adults to participate in a two-week experiment.

'It's almost like this addictive behaviour where you're constantly task switching between what you're doing and the next email that comes in.' — Kostadin Kushlev, study's lead researcher

For the first week, which consisted of five working days, half the group was told to switch off any email alerts and limit checking emails to three times a day; while the other half was encouraged to log in to check inboxes as frequently as desired. At the end of each day, participants answered a series of questions about their stress levels and overall mood. After a week, the two groups switched.

Participants with unlimited email access self-reported that they felt higher daily stress and tension.

They were more likely to respond to the following questions with answers showing more frequent stress:

  • How often have you felt that you were unable to control the important things in your life?
  • How often have you felt nervous and stressed?
  • How often have you found that you could not cope with all the things that you had to do?
  • How often have you been angered because of things that were outside of your control?

They were also less likely to say that they felt like they were "on top" of things that day.

Email checks are 'difficult to resist'

But it wasn't easy for participants to cut back on their email checking habits, Kushlev says.

Those allowed free rein of their inboxes checked their email about 13 times a day, he says, cautioning that many people likely under-reported that number. Meanwhile, those told to limit themselves to three times a day snuck in a few extra glances — averaging 4.5 to five checks daily.

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It's difficult for people to limit how often they check their email. When asked to look at their inboxes only three times a day, most participants reported checking it more frequently. (iStock)

"Even though it might be difficult to resist the temptation to check your email frequently, there might be a benefit to be gained," he says. 

Kushlev first became interested in the topic after realizing how much time he spends on email, collaborating with other academics. "I would spend basically an entire day going back and forth on email, but I wouldn't really be making any progress on other things that I wanted to accomplish during the day," he says.

He wanted to find a better approach to tackling the daily email onslaught and determine if checking email less frequently could affect stress levels.

Kushlev now checks his email two to three times a day, cleaning out his inbox each time rather than responding to messages immediately. He understands some professions may require employees to be more connected than others, but still suggests that setting aside a few 10- to 15-minute periods to deal with email is "better than just constantly being pulled back and forth."

Increased productivity?

Kushlev is not the first to suggest that employees can boost productivity by not being attached to their smartphones and other electronic devices.

Timothy Ferris, author of The 4-Hour Workweek, has long promoted limiting email checks to twice a day.

Other experts recommend avoiding email first thing in the morning. Sid Savara, author of 7 Reasons Good People (With Great Plans) Still Fail, suggests working on a task for 30 to 45 minutes before peeking at an inbox to avoid distraction from new information.

Ferris and others encourage people to set up an auto-reply email function to inform others that emails are only checked a certain number of times a day and will be responded to within a certain amount of time to dispel the notion that correspondence should be instantaneous.

Since Kushlev started checking his email less frequently, he says he definitely feels less stressed.