The Canadian Bar Insurance Association
Employment & Labour

Instantaneous demands of email pushing workers over the edge

The proliferation of email and social media is contributing to an “unsustainable” pace in many workplaces, leading to mentally distressed employees who may eventually reject email altogether, predicts Toronto employment lawyer Natalie MacDonald.

The stress that accompanies the constant flow of email communications increases interruptions and results in lower productivity and poorer-quality work, says MacDonald, co-founding partner of Rudner MacDonald LLP.

“I think we’re going to come to a point where the pendulum will swing back to a workplace that is more orally communicative and collaborative,” MacDonald tells

“The stress that employees are under to be able to answer emails at all hours, respond to demand and keep on top of their work is incredible at this moment in time. It’s reaching proportions that I think are unreasonable to actually produce quality work.”

MacDonald is witnessing the effects of such mental distress in various work environments, “and I think email and technology are primarily responsible for that. We will reach a point where people are just going to say 'no' — I think it’s happening already.”

French IT company Atos is in the midst of bringing in a “zero email” policy, after the organization determined only 10 per cent of the 200 emails received by employees every day were useful, according to ABC News. Instead, the company’s 74,000 employees will communicate via instant messaging and a Facebook-style app.

MacDonald says she sees both employees and employers scrambling to keep up with instantaneous demands, and distress that comes with the inability to maintain the pace.

“We’ve never had to respond like this before,” she says.

She expects workplace policies will evolve to support a move away from instant email communication. For example, staff won’t be expected to bring their devices home at night. Or, if they do work off-hours, they could use a delay function on email replies to help manage employee and client expectations that they aren’t always available 24/7.

“I absolutely believe to get the best quality work, you need to focus on one thing at a time, and I feel the way we use technology now does not allow for that.”

MacDonald believes the trend to eradicate email will likely coincide with the movement of the millennial generation, born between 1981 and 1997, into management positions. The generation is thought to be more collaborative and favour flexible work options. They also value the importance of meaningful work.

“Once the pendulum swings, I see meetings becoming much more productive, and individuals being able to feel as though they’re doing quality work and not just quantity work,” she says. “That’s important to our psyche in the workplace.”

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