Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Work-Life Balance & Email

What did schools do before email? I started teaching in 2006 and already email was widely used. I was familiar with that, as email had been a common form of communication at university. However, it was not used at all when I myself was a student at school (pre-2002). It is not uncommon for teachers to get 30 to 40 emails day, and when I was a head of year, 60 or 70 emails a day was entirely possible.

I remember when I started at my new school (September 2016), that there was a brief discussion in a meeting... "Remember no emails after 6pm, or at the weekend, SLT need to be leading on that.". I recall thinking, that sounds like a good idea, but not fully appreciating how much of a difference it makes.

Teaching is all consuming; you can work every hour in the day, and still not get everything done. Likewise, your email inbox is rarely completely empty. There is a great temptation to sit down in an evening and try and 'clear a few' - although even this acknowledges that it may be impossible to ever conquer. These might be your working hours, but they are not the same for everyone. Some teachers will get up early and be working from 5am, some will stay late in school, others will up until 2am. I'm not suggesting you should work at any of these times, but some people choose to, especially if they want to spend time with their partner or children. There is a certain flexibility with working hours.

One issue is the fact that many teachers have email set up on their phone. This can be hugely advantageous, especially during the working day. I know if I send something urgent to our SLT, someone will respond near on instantly. I can also clear a number of emails on the train to and from work. However, the problem is if you have notifications set up (I don't on my phone - only on my iPad), you will be constantly distracted. If there are no guidelines on when emails can be sent, this can then become part of your evening, weekend and even holidays.

I set up a few Twitter polls recently:

I find it incredibly worrying that 5% of respondents send email over the weekend and expect a response. Also that 56% send, but don't expect a response - but is there a consideration about how those receiving the email feel or react?

Can they really just ignore it? Do they feel they have to 'just quickly reply'? They may do this while they are out for dinner with their partner, sat in the park with their child, or enjoying a hobby with a friend? Regardless of policy, if emails are being sent, some people will feel they need to reply. Having now experienced no emails outside of reasonable working hours for well over a year, I think far more schools should 'ban' email from 6pm to 7am, weekends and school holidays if they are serious about staff well-being.

I followed this up after half term:

It is clear that emails slowed down... but didn't stop. Nearly a quarter of teachers were getting 11 or more emails over their week "off". There is obviously complexity behind this data - some emails don't need responding to, some are from students, some might be from mailing lists.

Since tweeting these out, I received a number of DMs from colleagues on Twitter. These are some of the examples of emails sent in schools:
  • Information requests for students sent out at 2am in the morning
  • Staff meeting agendas sent out at 10pm on a Saturday night
  • SLT requests for information send out at 9am on a Sunday morning
  • Department data requests sent out during the holidays
  • Deadlines of 24 hours on emails sent at 8pm on a Friday
This is on top of all the 'general information' and 'all staff' (when they don't need to be 'all staff'!) emails sent during the evenings and weekends. 

How can anyone justify this?

This has a huge detrimental effect on work life balance. Teachers can never switch off, and even if they don't have their email direct to their phone or iPad - if they know these emails are being sent - and it seems part of their school culture -  they feel they need to check. When and why did we become this kind of profession? Instant replies are wanted for things which really could wait...

This can have a huge affect on the stress and anxiety levels of staff; it can make them feel guilty or inadequate when they spend time with family, friends, or on holiday. It also seems to be a competitive 'who is working the hardest?' culture - a dangerous feature of modern teaching.  

There is another way.

Your working hours may be late at night, or at weekends. That's fine; there is an element of flexible working in teaching in this respect. I also think it is not enough for SLT to just say "well don't check it". Most staff want to do their job well; they want to be efficient.

Delay Delivery

My old school used to have email setup through Outlook; it was very easy to 'Delay Delivery'. I used to frequently do this and set up for 8am arrival in inboxes, as I knew many staff checked their email around this time before going off to briefing or to register their form.


For Gmail, this is the ideal solution. It is a simple  add in for Chrome that allows you to send delayed messages (it does have a limit). This also has another new great function of pausing your email while you work on something important - see below for more on this. There is also now a new Boomerang app for your phone, so you can simply write emails in this to send later - even if you don't use as your main email app. 

Other options

Write it, leave it in your Draft folder, and then send when you get in in the morning (after 7am!).

This is important.

I did some reading around email, well being and work life balance while writing this blog. The first shocking statistic is that can take 20 minutes on average to refocus after being disrupted by an email. If you are marking and hear a 'ping', it may take you a considerable length of time to get back to concentration level you had before. If that email is received outside of school and triggers stress or anxiety, then it's impact may last a lot longer than 20 minutes.

It has been proven to be far more efficient to 'cluster' tasks, and so setting aside 2 or 3 occasions during the day to check and respond to emails is a much better work habit. However, the nature of schools doesn't always work this way - but perhaps the trial of slightly better habits may work? It doesn't help when you are stopped in the corridor and someone says, "I've just sent you an email..." - if you send it by email, it can obviously be replied to later in the day when I am not trying to prepare to teach my next lesson, discipline this student, mark this book, or just make a cup of tea!

Would you write better / politer / more useful responses if you were sat at a PC with time dedicated to emails, rather than rushing between a Year 9 and a Year 11 lesson on your phone? You may also not need to send that 'all staff' email about a lost mug, the whereabouts of a child who missed your lunchtime detention or the jammed photocopier if you wait until later in the day - those issues may have all resolved themselves! 

Another key bit of research is that people, even those with busy working lives, who checked their emails less (regardless of volume of email), were less stressed. Flipping between tasks (teaching and email responding) makes you less efficient at both, and naturally more stressed doing both - this has got to be a concern. Teachers, or other staff, who bombard colleagues with emails during the day are potentially effecting their performance in the classroom.

Finally, an incredible statistic from the NY Times found 6% of workers (not teacher specifically), checked their work email while they, or their partner, was in labour! 

  • Don't email after 6pm, before 7am, at weekends or holidays - it can wait. Even if it is not school policy, you may produce a butterfly effect. If your working hours mean you catch up on emails during this time, use technology to delay it's arrival.
  • Try small changes to your email habits - turn off notifications on your device, close your email browser window when marking, deactivate during holidays, 'cluster' your time.
  • Consider the implications of your email on the recipient - you don't always know the interruption, stress, guilt or anxiety your 'quick email' may be having.
  • Always think before you hit send - Do I need to make it an 'all staff' email? Do I need to send that email at all? What happens if someone forwards this email on? Have I conveyed my tone? Have I used the CC correctly? 
  • Would it just be better if I went to see the person face to face instead? 

Further reading:
  • https://hbr.org/2014/07/the-cost-of-continuously-checking-email
  • https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/11/opinion/sunday/stop-checking-email-so-often.html
  • http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563214005810
  • https://www.teachertoolkit.co.uk/2012/10/10/ttkitthunks-pkainsworth/
  • https://www.teachertoolkit.co.uk/2015/11/19/emailprotocol/

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