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Happy 50th Birthday To Emails

They’ve been saving us from unnecessary meetings for half a century, but are they worth the cost to our mental health?

There’s no doubt that emails have had a profound positive impact on humanity. Without emails, I never would have found out that I had a great uncle who happened to be a Prince in Nigeria who only recently passed away and left me a family fortune worth over $3 trillion USD because there were no other living heirs.

It was email that allowed me to rapidly send them through my credit card details, PIN as well as copies of my licence and passport that ensured the speedy transfer of funds into my account.

Sure, I haven’t received them yet and it’s been over five months, but I’m going to be rich very soon! And boy do I need the money, because I was recently the victim of identity theft when my credit card was used to purchase a Bugatti in Nairobi.

The point is, emails have had a profound effect on our lives and a lot of that is positive. But with this year marking the 50th anniversary of the invention of emails, mental health and technology experts are questioning the detrimental effect the constant flow of messages into our inboxes is having on our mental health and eroding the work-life balance of hundreds of millions of people.

Email is just another way to message someone these days. Are there too many ways? Image: Getty.

Cal Newport, a professor of computer-science at Georgetown University told the New York Times podcast that email “clashes with our fundamental human wiring to have this non-stop piling up of communication from our tribe members that we can’t keep up with.”

He’s got a point, I’ve currently got 28,633 unread emails sitting in my work inbox. If I were to take time to look through and process each of them, I probably wouldn’t be done for another hundred years and, hopefully by then, we’ll have worked out how to send emails telepathically, rendering my attempts to go through those thousands of emails utterly obsolete.

And it’s this background stress and feeling that you have to respond to those emails that is causing a lot of people undue anxiety in their jobs. “As long as we remain committed to a workflow based on constant, improvised messaging,” Newport writes, “we will remain in a state of low-grade anxiety.”

This is why France enacted legislation that gave employees the ‘right to disconnect’ – requiring employers to negotiate with their workers about sending emails outside of work hours to prevent employees from suffering burnout.

It’s not a bad idea considering studies show that people on average feel the need to check their emails every six minutes. Which is pretty crazy. People don’t even check on their babies every six minutes, yet they’re keeping a close eye on the inbox just in case something important like an all-staff invitation to Janice’s goodbye party comes through, even though she’s only been working at the office for three weeks and, to be honest, you didn’t even know she was working there until you found out she was leaving.

So, happy birthday to you, emails! I’m not sure if you’ve made life better or worse. I’ll let you know when that $3 trillion USD rolls into my bank account.