Email is often cited as one of the most stressful things about the modern workplace, especially for people who feel pressure to stay logged on 24/7. Now, researchers say that different personality types respond in different ways to certain email habits and behaviors—and that knowing your “type” may help you reduce email-related dread or anxiety.
The new research, which was presented today at the British Psychological Society’s annual conference for occupational psychology in Liverpool, is based on an online survey of 368 people who had also completed Myers-Briggs questionnaires to determine their personality type.
This simple test prompts users to select traits for themselves in four categories: Introverted or Extroverted; Sensing or Intuitive; Thinking or Feeling; and Judging or Perceiving. The result is a four-letter combination of these traits: ISFJ or ENTP, for example.
When psychologists from OPP—a research branch of the Myers-Briggs company—compared survey data with respondents’ personality types, they found some interesting differences in how people used email, and in what they considered the most stressful aspects.
“Our research shows that while there are some general guidelines for using email, everyone is different,” said study author and OPP researcher John Hackston, in a press release. “Knowing your personality type can help you to avoid stress and communicate better with others.”
For example, those whose types included an “I” for intuitive—whom the researchers described as having a “big-picture focus”—were more likely to check their emails on vacation, over the weekends, and before and after work than their more “matter-of-fact” (or “S” for sensing) peers.
That’s unfortunate for them, says Hackston, since emailing outside of work hours has been associated with emotional exhaustion and work-life imbalance. (This issue has become so pervasive around the world that France recently instituted a “Right to Disconnect” law, requiring companies to negotiate off-hours communication boundaries.)
That’s not all the survey found. Based on the full results, OPP developed personalized email management tips for eight unique personality types.
For example, “activists” (people who are extroverted and sensing) should remember to make sure they send all of the emails they start in a day. “Conservers” (introverted and sensing) should turn off email notifications when they need to focus and concentrate, and are encouraged to follow up with people when they don’t respond to initial emails.
“Explorers” (extroverted and intuitive) should not worry about creating subfolders if they never use them, while “Visionaries” (introverted and intuitive) should consider sending a short “holding” email if they aren’t able respond right away.
“Directors” (extroverted and sensing) should avoid being too direct when stressed, and “Nurturers” (extroverted and feeling) shouldn’t be offended if people omit pleasantries in their emails.
Some advice was more broad: Extroverts are reminded that not everyone wants to meet face-to-face all the time, while introverts are reminded the opposite—that some things really are best hashed out in person, rather than online. The entire collection of email tips, as well as tips for sending emails to different personality types, is available on the OPP website.
The researchers also provide suggestions that all personality types can use to improve their relationship with work email. These include responding more quickly; taking care with chain emails and when cc'ing large groups; being clear, concise, and polite; and thinking about your audience.
They also recommend sending fewer emails overall, and sticking to the workday whenever possible. “This may be difficult, but try and have at least some time email free to reduce your stress levels,” they write.
Psychologist Ben Dattner, PhD, a New York City-based executive coach who was not involved in the new research, agrees that there are very few set-in-stone rules when it comes to managing emails.
“Some people might find it more relaxing to totally unplug on vacation, while other people might find that stressful because they don’t have their finger on the pulse of what’s going on,” Dattner told RealSimple.com. “You might have to experiment a little, and be strategic about what you put in your out-of-office reply, to see what works best for you.”
He does think, however, that everyone can benefit from setting some time-and-place limits on email. He even cites an amusing 2005 study that revealed how email and phone distractions could affect workers’ IQ scores even more than smoking marijuana could.
“You need some sort of delineation between when you’re trying to be productive, like reading or writing, and when you’re doing email,” he says. “Close your browser or put your smartphone on mute, and tell yourself you’re only going to check once an hour or once every half hour. You may not be responding to as much all at once, but you’ll be responding better and more efficiently, and that’s what’s important.”