By Maureen Salamon
FRIDAY, May 11 (HealthDay News) -- Email vacations while on the job could benefit people's health, reducing stress levels and contributing to better focus, a new study suggests.
Researchers from the University of California, Irvine, and the U.S. Army found that a group of workers who were cut off from office email use for five days experienced more natural, variable heart rates and switched between computer windows only half as much.
Study co-author Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the university, said the findings could help boost productivity in offices that choose to implement these email vacations, either by controlling email login times, batching messages or through other strategies.
"We were surprised by the results, because they didn't have to turn out this way," Mark said. "It's possible that people might have been even more stressed not to have email, to feel like they were missing out on something, so we didn't expect that people would become significantly less stressed."
Mark and her colleagues presented the study this week at a meeting of the Association for Computing Machinery, in Austin, Texas. Research presented at scientific conferences is considered preliminary and has not been peer-reviewed.
Thirteen civilian employees at the Army's Natick Soldier Systems Center, near Boston, took part in a three-day baseline data-collection phase, including interviews about their existing multitasking and email usage, and a five-day no-email period. All participants, who were split between men and women, were information workers whose job titles included chemical engineer, psychologist, materials scientist, biologist, food technologist and research administrator.
Co-workers who continued reading emails switched screens twice as often -- an average of 37 times per hour compared with 18 for "vacationers" -- and were in a steady "high-alert" state, with more constant heart rates, while those removed from email had more natural, variable heart rates, according to the study. They reported feeling better able to do their jobs and stay on task, with fewer stressful and time-wasting interruptions.
"While the study focused on email . . . it really got at some important issues such as multitasking, focus and being present at what we do on a day-to-day basis," said David Ballard, head of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program. "It really highlights the importance of people not trying to do so many things at one time and being present at what they do."
Despite the small number of participants, the results were robust, researcher Mark said, and the only downside participants reported was feeling somewhat isolated -- though they were able to gather certain necessary information face to face from colleagues who did have email access.
Ballard said he has heard of some employers considering email blackout periods to benefit employees, but acknowledged that the concept "is a real challenge."
"The challenge here is that they would need to build some flexibility into the process," he said. "People like to work in different ways . . . not a one-size-fits-all approach."
"I think as we focus on flexibility in the workplace and flexible work arrangements that it's harder to implement an across-the-board solution like that," Ballard added. "We know from research that when employees have less control, it actually affects their performance as well. It could actually increase their stress level."
Mark said she'd like her future research to focus on how digital technology affects offline relationships, not just in the workplace.
"People are so consumed with technology, it's 24/7," she said. "I think the current younger generation interacts very differently than the older generation. I'd like to know the effect on interpersonal skills."