Michael*, a Denver-based supply chain analyst, received a surprising email last year: a colleague had accidentally replied-all to the entire Denver office of over 100 people, sending a rundown of the amount of drugs he’d consumed at the music festival, Coachella.
“It was breathtaking,” Michael told me. “His follow-up reply 15 seconds later was somehow perfect in its brevity: ‘sorry everyone wrong email.’”
Michael’s colleague had inadvertently clicked “reply all” and told his entire team that he thought his drug dealer was fleecing him, in a pristine example of how the reply-all button can sabotage individual email senders. Maria*, a security researcher, told me she experienced something less criminal, but still somewhat embarrassing: she was invited to a radio show to discuss her work, only to have one of the hosts reply to the thread with, “Who the hell is Maria and why is she coming on the show?”
But these stories barely scratch the surface of what a nightmare accidental reply-alls can be. Last week, a deputy director of job training at the Utah Department of Corrections meant to send her close colleagues an invite to a potluck; instead, she accidentally included a list for more than 22,000 Utah government employees, resulting in so many reply-alls Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox jokingly called it an “emergency.” In 2016, a staffer in the United Kingdom’s National Health Service sent an accidental blank test email to 1.2 million employees, resulting in an estimated 186 million reply-all emails, many of which were people begging to be taken off the thread, and causing a three-hour delay in the organizations’ inboxes as the system struggled to keep up.
Management training is key to reducing the destructive influence of reply-all messages on office productivity and stress levels.
Reply all-pocalypses, or “email storms,” can slow or break down servers, as happened to the U.S. State Department after diplomats replied-all to a blank email sent to its global distribution list, crashing its internal communications system. But even more socially acceptable forms of reply-all use — such as welcome emails for new employees — cause large companies tens of millions of dollars a year in lost productivity, Ryan Fuller, former CEO of the analytics company VoloMetrix, and now vice president of Workplace Analytics at Microsoft, told Bloomberg in 2012. Even worse, the constant flow of information, demand on workers’ attention, and frequent interruptions can stress out and distract email users.
Reply-all disasters are the extreme example of what anyone with a desk job already knows on a deep and personal level: email sucks. It is busywork that takes up most of our day but somehow accomplishes nothing. It is a form of communication that invites miscommunication, faux pas, and anxiety, and this all becomes painfully clear when you add the wrong person to a thread or email 8,000 people at once, by mistake. The solution, thankfully, is not that complicated. You just have to use email less, and basically never reply all.
Our email inboxes, and our brains, could really use a break. According to the market research firm Radicati Group, there are approximately 235.6 billion emails sent every single day. An estimated 126 emails per day per business user will be sent and received by the end of 2019. And a 2016 survey from Adobe, self-reported by 1,000 American white-collar workers, found that we spend over four hours a day checking our email. A calculator from the Washington Post can predict, based on when you started working, when you expect to retire, and how often you check your email (for me: twice an hour), how many emails you’ll send during your entire career.
All that emailing takes its toll on workers in numerous ways.
“When people wore heart rate monitors throughout the day, and when we controlled for all things that we thought would likely impact stress (job demands, job latitude, age, work role), we found that when people got on email their stress increased,” Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, who has studied the impact of email use on our psychology, told me. “When they got off email, their stress decreased.”
Other research has shown similar effects. One study from 2015 found that the more time a user spends on email, the higher their stress and the lower their perceived productivity. Yet another study from Mark found that interruptions, including emails, caused employees to work faster, but at a price — stress and frustration spike by a significant margin, and the employees reported higher workload and more pressure.
Workplace stress, even from something as seemingly insignificant as an email storm with people begging to be taken off a list, can have serious health implications.
There’s a social element at play here, as well: Emails sent to multiple participants may contribute to inbox-related stress because people aren’t sure how to respond to them.
“There’s a lot of lack of clarity among people when they have to respond,” Sukeshini Grandhi, an assistant professor of information systems at Eastern Connecticut State University, told me. “This contributes to information overload. It’s not just receiving email; to reply appropriately requires a bit of an effort.”
Grandhi, with her colleague Lyndsey Lanagan-Leitzel, conducted a study on reply-all behavior. The two researchers wanted to know why people incorrectly send reply-all emails, so composed a study that consisted of both an experimental portion and a survey portion. In the former, they tracked 109 participants as they replied, or replied-all, to simulated emails; for the survey section, the subjects were asked questions such as, “As a recipient, how would they respond to emails addressed to more than two people?” and, “As a sender, how would they like the recipients to respond to emails addressed to more than two people?”
The researchers found that people reply-all inappropriately because they’re unsure of which action to take: When is an individual response more appropriate than a reply-all?
“It seems like it’s these mismatched perceptions of what’s okay and not okay, and what is agreed upon or not,” Grandhi said.
Nathan Zeldes, the president of the Information Overload Research Group, believes that technology solutions and a culture shift are both needed to help ease the stress brought on by our incessantly refilling inboxes. In his book, Solutions to Information Overload: The Definitive Guide, he outlines a number of ways companies can lessen the burden of reply-all nightmares.
“A number of companies — the Nielsen company for example — have deployed the simplest and most effective solution: remove the Reply All button from the email program’s interface,” he told me. “This is usually very easy to do (by an IT group) and has been shown to reduce email load significantly.” Outlook, the Microsoft email platform, offers administrators the ability to restrict reply-all emails, while Google’s Gmail allows users to undo sent email within 30 seconds if they realize a mistake.
Zeldes also proposes regulating access to large email lists to only a few absolutely necessary employees; limiting the number of people to whom an email user can send an email all at once; and requiring confirmation before a user sends a reply-all email.
Grandhi, however, cautions against this last suggestion, telling me that users can become blind to such verification messages over time, thereby rendering them less effective. On top of technological solutions, such as hiding the reply all button, she believes management training is key to reducing the destructive influence of reply-all messages on office productivity and stress levels.
“Say someone has won an award — you’d be amazed at the number of emails coming from that,” she said. “Everyone is sitting there receiving these emails when clearly they’re meant for the person who got the award.”
Another possible solution: Use profile images. Research has also shown that displaying recipient avatars can reduce the problem of excessive reply-all messages. In that study, researchers found that when participants had only a half second to determine the appropriateness of the recipient list, accuracy went up by nearly 30 percent when images were displayed, as when they weren’t.
Whatever the solution, it’s clear we need to find one: Especially with smartphones in our pockets, the scourge of email is only getting worse.
“The email load is being processed 24/7, wreaking havoc on quality of life and family interactions,” Zeldes said. Grandhi agrees, telling me that on top of all the emails we already receive, reply-alls are the “straw that broke the camel’s back.”
And workplace stress, even from something as seemingly insignificant as an email storm with people begging to be taken off a list, can have serious health implications. It’s been linked to heart disease, chronic pain, depression, and absenteeism, among other symptoms; it stands to reason that workplaces that reduce information overload and stress in their employees will have healthier, happier employees.
Until we find a better, larger solution to our current crippling dependence on email, take some personal responsibility and do everyone in your life a favor: stop replying all.
*Names have been changed to protect reply-all victims from further embarrassment.