Delete Your Work Email

By now we are all incredibly familiar with Anne Helen Petersen’s seminal article on millennial burnout. It spoke so profoundly to so many of us because it perfectly captured and verbalised the intense exhaustion and stress which has become the norm for us. Part of this piece which really stuck with me, however, was the unique role of technology in all of this.

Now, technology is great. I love technology! But we all know the roll-call of problems it presents; crippling FOMO, blue light interrupting our circadian rhythm and messing with our sleep, toxic comparisons and unattainable lifestyles presented through social media, phones replacing human interaction, the potential for cyber bullying and access to potentially damaging resources. We know all these arguments, yet the pull of technology and social media and all of it, the convenience it affords, the connectivity it allows, the education it provides, the sense of participation in the cultural zeitgeist it fosters, outweighs it all. It does for me, too.

What I want to talk about is the specific role that technology has to play within millennial burnout. AHP says in her article,

There is no “off the clock” when at all hours you could be documenting your on-brand experiences or tweeting your on-brand observations. [...]

Email and Slack make it so that employees are always accessible, always able to labor, even after they’ve left the physical workplace and the traditional 9-to-5 boundaries of paid labor. Attempts to discourage working “off the clock” misfire, as millennials read them not as permission to stop working, but a means to further distinguish themselves by being available anyway.

I mean, this pretty much nails it. Recent research from UCA found that 83% of professionals that they surveyed admitted to answering and sending work emails out of office hours and 66% of them took their work phone or laptop on holiday with them. Separately, the Mental Health Foundation found that in the past year 74% of people surveyed had felt so stressed they had been unable to cope. These figures all land in the same ballpark, and I would be willing to wager my kidneys that they’re interrelated. Without these technological interventions, we would not be so reachable and able to labour at the sound of a ‘ping’. This isn’t to say that before technology nobody ever worked overtime or laboured office hours beyond the 9-5, but to emphasise that we are now reachable whether we are in the office or not, on holiday or not. The workplace is now portable, and it goes wherever we take it.


[Last Christmas I had my CEO text and call me (having tracked down my number through someone else) during my partner’s work Christmas party, at around 9pm, because he wanted to know where to find a file. Sorry, no.]

The compulsion to prove that we are On It ™ by instantly responding to an email at all hours is contributing to burnout. By doing it yourself, you’re setting the expectation that your colleagues will do it too. That’s not okay and actually contributes to the problem.

We’ve been trained our entire lives to believe that any time spent unproductively is wasted. Working through our lunch breaks and beyond 5pm because we feel guilty taking our (deserved) time back when nobody else seems to be is contributing to burnout.

The author of When Likes Aren’t Enough, Dr Tim Bono, told Healthista that “when we derive a sense of worth based on how we are doing relative to others, we place our happiness in a variable that is completely beyond our control”. Comparing ourselves to our colleagues, our peers, our friends, our acquaintances, is contributing to burnout. The constant mental gymnastics of trying to juggle a healthy lifestyle with work with paying the bills with socialising with errands with self care with curating an online brand which makes all of the above look seamless and without flaw is contributing to burnout.

The same neurochemistry which fuels addictions such as gambling, drugs and alcohol is what keeps us going back for more social media updates, more likes, more accelerated email response times. Part of what makes it so addictive is the uncertainty, and the engineers behind the algorithms of your favourite apps know this. There’s a reason that sometimes your feed is dull as hell, and other times lit. The only way to satisfy ‘maybe’ is to keep going back for more. This is why you feel the compulsion to clear and address the notification from your boss immediately, despite the fact it’s midnight. Maybe this time your out-of-hours availability will distinguish you. Technology addiction is contributing to burnout.

So what do we do about this?

First of all delete your work email from your phone. Second of all, delete the idea that constant ability to labour, constant ability to be productive and profitable, is desirable, normal, or beneficial to you. Your labour profits upper management and company profit lines only. You are more than a labouring machine.

Define your boundaries between work and life. Enforce them. Don’t feel a shred of guilt for doing so. Your boss might not like it, but that’s because it’s not profitable for them. I repeat: do not carry guilt for this, your company will be fine.

Thirdly, put down your phone for just an hour a day. The average Brit checks their phone over 10,000 times a year. US adults spend around 11 hours a day interacting with media. Reclaim your time and spend even a tiny fraction of it totally offline. I promise you will feel like you’ve taken a three week holiday just by leaving your phone at home and taking yourself out for coffee for an hour or two.

I’m not trying to tell you that technology is bad or evil or destroying us all. Again, I love technology. I love the internet. Without it, so many of my friendships and projects and some of the best experiences of my life would never have come to be.

All I’m saying is, value your time. You were not born to labour.