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Six ways to banish email anxiety

17th June 2019 at 10:00

Is your school’s email policy causing you concern? We speak to a headteacher who says changing the rules around email leads to a happier workplace

Raabia, a sociology sixth-form teacher, is finally heading home. It’s Friday night and it's been a long week. Sitting on the tram, she checks her emails on her smartphone, clicking the icon as if on autopilot.

Her stomach lurches: she's been summoned to a meeting at 8am on Monday with an assistant headteacher. The email doesn’t say why. 

Just moments before, the weekend was full of promise but now it stretches out in front of her like an endurance test. Raabia spends the Saturday checking over her lesson plans and Sunday updating paperwork, preparing for every possible scenario that could await her on her return to college.

School emails are too often a source of stress and anxiety for teachers – a survey by NASUWT found nearly half of teachers report that work-related emails are significantly driving up their workload and invading their home life. Headteacher Simon Smith spoke to us about how he has tackled the problem of toxic emails in his school.

1. School’s out, email off

Just because emails can be sent from anywhere in the world at any time of day, it doesn’t mean they should be. Smith has some hard and fast rules when it comes to when emails can be sent.

“We decided our times by sitting down with all of the staff to agree what was reasonable,” he explains. “Then, together, we came up with our parameters for when it is acceptable to send. If there is a safeguarding emergency, staff know that I might call, but otherwise, no emails outside of hours.”

This doesn’t stop staff being able to get on with their work. On the contrary, he says, the emails can still be written but they go to the drafts box or are sent on a delay timer.

“Sometimes, you need to write the response in the moment, but we train staff on how to use the different functions in outlook. When it gets to 5 o’clock, I want my staff to go home and be with their family, friends and kids: that’s important. I don’t want staff receiving emails on a Sunday afternoon and having their home life disrupted.”

2. No new information over email

Every school will have a whole-school calendar, and this is usually drawn up in advance of the academic year. This should contain every meeting, book look, department review and data collection, so nothing coming through on email should be a surprise.

“It’s poor communication to be emailing out notification of things like book looks or observations,” Smith says. 

“Emails should mainly be reminders. There shouldn’t be any new information sent over email. These things should be planned in advance, booked on to the school calendar and then shared with all staff. It isn’t reasonable to spring things on teachers over email.”

3. No parent-to-teacher emails

In the age of email addresses being posted on school websites, many teachers find themselves fielding questions from parents of students past and present, filling up their email inbox and making it harder to prioritise which to reply to. Smith says it is better to put all parental emails through an admin triage.

“We don’t provide parents with teachers’ email accounts and, instead, all emails from parents go to an admin assistant,” he continues. “They might be forwarded on if they need to be, but they won’t be sent until we’re back at school, so teachers aren’t bombarded with them on their weekends or evenings.” 

This isn’t because the parent-school relationship isn’t valued. In fact, Smith says this policy strengthens it. “My teachers are really hardworking and make a great effort to make themselves accessible to parents, but I don't want email dialogues between parents and teachers that should be resolved over the phone or face to face.” 

4. Mind your (email) manners

Even those with the mildest of manners can become irate over email, and sometimes we all need a reminder to be nice. And it’s important to remember that words can be taken entirely out of context, or a joke can be lost without the expression in a voice or a smile on the face.

“We have jokes between staff but we treat emails as formal communication, and external emails are formal, with school titles and the school address,” explains Smith.

As with all written communication, never commit to paper what you wouldn’t be happy being read out in court.

5. Make them easy to read

Unnecessary use of the “reply-all” function is bad form (and may result in someone printing out your SIMs photo to use on the staffroom dartboard). And there are other things, according to Smith, that you can do to make emails easier to read and therefore less anxiety inducing.

“We have rules about putting the actual topic of the email in the subject box; this means that staff can save time when scanning and prioritising emails,” he says. “If you get added into a long trail of emails, unpicking exactly what it’s talking about can take ages. Correct email etiquette includes using the ‘regarding’ box and keeping each email concise.”

6. Simply send less 

“Don’t string things out on an email that could be solved with a face-to-face conversation,” Smith says. “I know of teams that have more informal groups using messenger apps that they use to ask quick questions. They’re also good if you want to just ping a link across. This cuts back on unnecessary emails, and using social media to communicate is a good way of putting people in touch with others who might be helpful to them.”

And why does all this matter? In Smith’s eyes, saving your staff time on emails goes some way to giving them the time they need on the more important things in life.

“What’s really important is that when I get home at night, and at weekends, I can spend time with my children and my wife; it’s important that we don’t strip away our teachers’ family time. I have to make sure that my job doesn’t impinge upon my teachers’ home lives. Ultimately, my teachers are better teachers because they get to have interesting lives.”

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