Inbox zero or 50,000+ unread – what your emails say about you

Inbox zero or 50,000+ unread – what your emails say about you

Drowning in a flood of emails? (Picture: Getty)

Apparently, one in a hundred Brits have more than 50,000 unread work emails

Fifty thousand.

If just the thought of that is sending cold shivers down your spine, you’re not alone. 

Then again, neither are they. Alongside the one in a hundred with a truly terrifying number of unopened emails, 5% of UK office workers have more than 5,000, and 13% have more than 1,000.

But is the ability to continue living life under the shadow of a monstrous mail backlog evidence of some psychopathic tendency or risk-seeking behaviour? Or is it simply that there are too many emails out there.

Dr Talar Moukhtarian, an assistant professor in mental health at the University of Warwick, warns people not to judge those with out-of-control emails too harshly, or assume those at ‘Inbox Zero’ are better people.

An overflowing inbox doesn’t necessarily mean a tolerance for chaos (Picture: Getty/iStockphoto)

‘It’s tempting to think that having a cluttered inbox means we’re chaos-loving rebels, while an empty one screams “organisational wizard”, but it’s not that straightforward,’ she says. 

‘While how we handle our emails can give a sneak peek into our personality – from our stress tolerance to our love for spontaneity, it’s essential to recognise that it’s not a definitive indicator of personality traits.’

How we manage our inbox, Dr Moukhtarian says, can offer insights into our organisation, stress tolerance, attention to detail, and communication style.

‘For instance, someone with thousands of unread emails may have a higher tolerance for chaos and spontaneity, while those with no unread emails may prioritise organisation and prompt task completion,’ she says.

Dr Talar Moukhtarian (Picture: University of Warwick)

However, that does not mean that everyone with a bulging inbox can cope with chaos, nor does it mean those who are organised cannot lose control of the situation. You may receive hundreds of emails a day, and simply not have time to address both those and the actual day job.

Last year, Financial Times journalist Pilita Clark revealed she had more than 400,000 unread emails, while a colleague had 500,000.

‘We have reached the point where the benefits of communication are being outweighed by a dispiriting loss of production,’ she wrote.

The study that revealed those one in a hundred Brits with 100,000 unread emails, commissioned by language-learning platform Babbel to mark Gmail’s 20th anniversary, also found that 65% of those who responded said the volume of emails they receive at work increased their stress levels. Of the participants, 43% hope that, in five years’ time, they will be sent fewer emails. We can dream.

‘A build-up of emails can affect our mental health,’ says Dr Moukhtarian. ‘A backlog of unread emails can feel like a never-ending avalanche of overwhelm, loss of control, increased anxiety, decreased focus, and negative self-perception.

Email overload can have negative mental health effects (Picture: Getty/Tetra images RF)

‘The sheer volume of emails can make it difficult to know where to start or prioritise, worrying about missing important messages or deadlines, leading to feelings of anxiety and stress. The constant reminder of unfinished business in the inbox can also make us feel overwhelmed and distracted from other tasks, impacting overall well-being and productivity.’

Dr Moukhtarian adds that it is essential to recognise the potential mental health implications of email overload, and ‘take proactive steps to manage inbox clutter effectively’.

The jury is still out on which of these actually work, from filtering messages and blocking notifications to mass unsubscribes.

However, one important step to consider is whether or not to engage with emails outside of office hours.

For many, keeping on top of the beast means they can relax a bit more, knowing they won’t be met on Monday morning by a towering column of messages.

One email won’t hurt, right? (Picture: Getty)

Then again, emailing on evenings, weekends or holidays simply speeds up the machine. No harm in a quick reply? Well, you’ll probably get another one in return, and you’re back where you started.

But if it helps to know you’ve dealt with it, remember that all-important scheduling function – you’ve done your bit, but won’t be hit with an immediate follow-up.

‘It’s the million-dollar question – should we dare to peek into our inbox outside of office hours or, heaven forbid, during our precious vacation time to avoid a backlog?’ says Dr Moukhtarian. 

‘The decision to check emails during off-hours depends on our individual preferences, work expectations, and personal boundaries. While staying connected to work may help some of us feel organised and reduce stress, it can also blur the boundaries between work and personal life, leading to burnout and decreased well-being. 

‘It’s all about finding that sweet spot between productivity and relaxation, setting clear boundaries, prioritising self-care, and communicating expectations with colleagues or line-managers about our availability outside of regular work hours; essential steps in maintaining a healthy work-life balance.’

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