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Email overload plagues principals

March 13, 2017 Bromley Chamberlain, ATA News Staff

Study highlights negative effects of digital age

For the average Canadian school principal, processing email is consuming 17 hours per week, or one-third of the work week. And nearly four in 10 think daily about leaving their jobs due to workload issues.

Those are the preliminary findings of a new study by Carleton University professor Linda Duxbury, who spoke to a gathering of Edmonton-and-area principals on March 1.

“Digital communications tools were introduced with the promise that they would enhance efficiency, productivity and work-life balance,” Duxbury said. “Such benefits have not, however, materialized. Instead, the research shows that email has increased role overload and stress, particularly when implemented in organizations that expect employees to respond to such messages 24/7.”

Principals in attendance nodded in agreement.

In order to study the impact of email on the lives of principals, Duxbury’s research colleague André Lanctot surveyed 1,150 school leaders in mid-2016. It was the first stage of a national initiative co-ordinated by Alberta Teachers’ Association researcher J-C Couture in collaboration with the Canadian Association of Principals. The study will be published at the end of March.

As well as measuring the amount of time spent on emails, the study found that 39 per cent of respondents have thought about leaving their jobs on a daily basis, partially due to the amount of work and the need to always be working.

“The amount of work has increased dramatically in the last decade mainly due to the use of technology,” Duxbury said. “Today … we can have someone in our office, a phone call, email, incoming voicemail, and we are expected to respond to them at the same time.”

Email is used widely as the primary communication tool in workplaces. Most organizations pride themselves on emails being responded to on a daily basis.

“This is totally unrealistic,” Duxbury said. “Memos sent in the late afternoon are expected to be read by morning for discussion. This is unreasonable. Everyone has to understand that communication needs to be managed. We need to give people time to read, understand and respond.”

“There is no longer any time to sit and think. People are wondering why innovation and creativity have gone down in this country. It is because too many of us are managing our lives by managing our inboxes.”

Photo: Bromley Chamberlain

Taming the Tiger
Linda Duxbury’s tips for dealing with email

  • School and system cultures are nested within the broader social milieu shaping the ecology of email use; consequently, change will require strong leadership and commitment from all levels of the organization.
  • Collaboratively decide on and enforce email etiquette.
  • Manage expectations (of self, colleagues, parents, the organization).
  • Use the four Ds: ditch (if not important); deal (in two minutes or less); delegate; decide (to file until later if it needs more attention).
  • Effective management of work-­related electronic communications is a crucial element for creating optimal conditions of work, so continued monitoring and assessment are key.

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