In early 2017, a French labor law went into effect that attempted to preserve the so-called right to disconnect. Companies with fifty or more employees were required to negotiate specific policies about the use of e-mail after work hours, with the goal of reducing the time that workers spent in their in-boxes during the evening or over the weekend. Myriam El Khomri, the minister of labor at the time, justified the new law, in part, as a necessary step to reduce burnout. The law is unwieldy, but it points toward a universal problem, one that’s become harder to avoid during the recent shift toward a more frenetic and improvisational approach to work: e-mail is making us miserable.

To study the effects of e-mail, a team led by researchers from the University of California, Irvine, hooked up forty office workers to wireless heart-rate monitors for around twelve days. They recorded the subjects’ heart-rate variability, a common technique for measuring mental stress. They also monitored the employees’ computer use, which allowed them to correlate e-mail checks with stress levels. What they found would not surprise the French. “The longer one spends on email in [a given] hour the higher is one’s stress for that hour,” the authors noted. In another study, researchers placed thermal cameras below each subject’s computer monitor, allowing them to measure the tell-tale “heat blooms” on a person’s face that indicate psychological distress. They discovered that batching in-box checks—a commonly suggested “solution” to improving one’s experience with e-mail—is not necessarily a panacea. For those people who scored highly in the trait of neuroticism, batching e-mails actually made them more stressed, perhaps because of worry about all of the urgent messages they were ignoring. The researchers also found that people answered e-mails more quickly when under stress but with less care—a text-analysis program called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count revealed that these anxious e-mails were more likely to contain words that expressed anger. “While email use certainly saves people time effort in communicating, it also comes at a cost, the authors of the two studies concluded. Their recommendation? To “suggest that organizations make a concerted effort to cut down on email traffic.”

Other researchers have found similar connections between e-mail and unhappiness. A study, published in 2019, looked at long-term trends in the health of a group of nearly five thousand Swedish workers. They found that repeated exposure to “high information and communication technology demands” (translation: a need to be constantly connected) were associated with “suboptimal” health outcomes. This trend persisted even after they adjusted the statistics for potential complicating factors such as age, sex, socioeconomic status, health behavior, body-mass index, job strain, and social support. Of course, we don’t really need data to capture something that so many of us feel intuitively. I recently surveyed the readers of my blog about e-mail. “It’s slow and very frustrating. . . . I often feel like email is impersonal and a waste of time,” one respondent said. “I’m frazzled—just keeping up,” another admitted. Some went further. “I feel an almost uncontrollable need to stop what I’m doing to check email,” one person reported. “It makes me very depressed, anxious and frustrated.”

When employees are miserable, they perform worse. They’re also more likely, as the French labor minister warned, to burn out, leading to increased health-care costs and expensive employee turnover. A Harvard Business School professor found that giving a group of management consultants predictable time off from e-mail increased the percentage of them who planned to stay at the firm “for the long term” from forty per cent to fifty-eight per cent. E-mail’s power to makes us unhappy also has more philosophical implications. There are two hundred and thirty million knowledge workers in the world, which includes, according to the Federal Reserve, more than a third of the U.S. workforce. If this massive population is being made miserable by a slavish devotion to in-boxes and chat channels, then this adds up to a whole lot of global miserableness! From a utilitarian perspective, this level of suffering cannot be ignored—especially if there is something that we might be able to do to alleviate it.

Given these stakes, it’s all the more surprising that we spend so little time trying to understand the source of this discontent. Many in the business community tend to dismiss the psychological toll from e-mail as an incidental side effect caused by bad in-box habits or a weak constitution. I’ve come to believe, however, that much deeper forces are at play in generating our mismatch with this tool, including some that get at the very core of what drives us as humans.

The need to interact with each other is one of the strongest motivational forces that humans experience. As the psychologist Matthew Lieberman explains in his book “Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect,” the social networks encoded in our neurons are linked to our pain systems, creating the intense feelings of heartbreak that we feel when someone close to us dies, or the total desolation that we might experience when we are isolated from other people for too long. “These social adaptations are central to making us the most successful species on earth,” Lieberman writes.

The flip side of an evolutionary obsession with social interaction is a corresponding feeling of distress when it’s thwarted. Much in the same way that our attraction to food is coupled with the gnawing sensation of hunger in its absence, our instinct to connect is accompanied by an anxious unease when we neglect these interactions. This matters in the office, because an unfortunate side effect of overwhelming e-mail communication is that it constantly exposes you to exactly this form of social distress. A frenetic approach to professional collaboration generates messages faster than you can keep up—you finish one response only to find that three more have arrived in the interim, and, while you are at home at night, or over the weekend, or when you are on vacation, you cannot escape the awareness that the missives in your in-box are piling up ever thicker in your absence.

When you skip a meal, telling your rumbling stomach that food is coming later in the day, and therefore that it has no reason to fear starvation, doesn’t alleviate the powerful sensation of hunger. Similarly, explaining to your brain that the neglected interactions reflected by your overfilled in-box have little to do with the health of your relationships doesn’t seem to prevent a corresponding sense of background anxiety. We can actually measure this triumph of ancient social drives over the rational modern brain in the laboratory. In one particularly devious study, researchers figured out how to discreetly assess our psychological response to thwarted digital connection. Subjects were brought into a room to work on word puzzles. They were told that, as part of the experiment, the researcher also wanted to test out a wireless blood-pressure monitor. The subject is left to work on the puzzles, and, after a few minutes, the researcher returns to the room and explains that the subject’s smartphone is creating “interference” with the wireless signal, so they need to move the phone to a table four feet away—still within earshot, but out of reach. After a few more minutes of working on a puzzle, the researcher covertly calls the subject’s phone. At this point, the subject is trying to solve the word puzzle while hearing his or her phone ringing from across the room, but is prevented from getting it because of a previous warning from the researcher that it is important not to get up “for any reason.”

During this entire charade, the wireless monitor is tracking the subject’s physiological state by measuring blood pressure and heart rate, allowing the researchers to closely monitor the effect of the phone separation. The results are predictable. During the periods when the phone is ringing across the room, indicators of stress and anxiety in the subject jumped higher. Similarly, self-reported stress rose and self-reported pleasantness fell. Performance on the word-search puzzle decreased during the period of unanswered ringing.

Rationally speaking, the subjects in this experiment knew that missing a call was not a crisis, as people miss calls all the time, and they were clearly engaged in something more important in the moment. Indeed, in many cases, the subject’s phone had already been set to silence mode, which the researchers surreptitiously turned off as they moved the phone across the room. This means that the subjects had already planned on missing any calls or messages that arrived during the experiment. But this rational understanding was no match for the underlying evolutionary pressures that have ingrained the idea that ignoring a potential connection is a really bad idea. The subjects were bathed in anxiety while their rational minds, if they had been asked, would have likely responded that there was nothing going on in the laboratory worth worrying about.

The missed connections in an ever-filling e-mail in-box sound these same Paleolithic alarm bells—regardless of our best attempts to convince ourselves that this unanswered communication isn’t critical. This effect is so strong that when Arianna Huffington’s company, Thrive Global, explored how to free its employees from this anxiety while they were on vacation (when the knowledge of accumulating messages becomes particularly acute), it ended up experimenting with an extreme solution, called Thrive Away. If a Thrive employee sends an e-mail to a colleague who is on vacation, the sender receives a note that the colleague is away and the message is automatically deleted. In theory, a simple vacation auto-responder should be sufficient—as it tells people sending a message not to expect a reply until the recipient returns—but logic is subservient in this situation. No matter what the expectations, the awareness that there are messages waiting somewhere triggers anxiety, ruining the potential relaxation of a person’s time off. The only cure is to prevent the messages from arriving altogether. Huffington said, “The key is not just that the tool is creating a wall between you and your email; it’s that it frees you from the mounting anxiety of having a mounting pile of emails waiting for you on your return—the stress of which mitigates the benefits of disconnecting in the first place.”

A tool like Thrive Away might temporarily alleviate the social stress of the way that we work, but we cannot ignore the fifty or so weeks a year when we’re not on vacation. As long as we remain committed to a workflow based on constant, improvised messaging, we will remain in a state of low-grade anxiety. To return to our motivating question, there are many reasons why e-mail makes us miserable. It creates, for example, a tortuous cycle that increases the amount of work on our plate while simultaneously thwarting, through constant distraction, our ability to accomplish it effectively. We’re also, it turns out, really bad at communicating clearly through a purely written medium—all kinds of nuances are lost, especially sarcasm, which leads to frustrating misunderstandings and confused exchanges. But lurking beneath these surface depredations is a more fundamental concern. The sheer volume of communication generated by modern professional e-mail directly conflicts with our ancient social circuits. We’re miserable, in other words, because we’ve accidentally deployed a literally inhumane way to collaborate.

Understanding these forces provides more than just catharsis, as these efforts can also help us to better understand what is needed to improve our professional culture. In recent years, I’ve been advocating for wider use of shared project-management systems that simplify the task of identifying who is working on what and how it is going. If you combine these systems with regular, short status meetings, you can significantly reduce the number of back-and-forth messages required to organize a team. When viewed abstractly, the overhead of implementing such a system might seem wasteful, given that tools like e-mail are much simpler and more flexible. But when this structured approach is considered in the context of how communication overload induces misery, it suddenly makes more sense.

More generally, once you move past just optimizing for speed or convenience, and begin instead to look for ways to minimize unstructured communication, numerous potential innovations emerge. The software-development company Basecamp, for example, makes use of regularly scheduled office hours: if someone has a technical question for a given expert, he or she can’t just shoot an e-mail but has to wait until the expert’s next office hours to make a query. In a book about Basecamp’s workplace culture, published in 2018, the co-founders admitted that, at first, they were worried that their employees wouldn’t put up with having to wait to talk to an expert, instead of just “pinging” the person in the moment. Their concerns were unfounded. “It turns out that waiting is no big deal most of the time,” they write. “But the time and control regained by our experts is a huge deal.”

Another innovation that I’ve seen have been successful experiments in moving past the paradigm of associating e-mail addresses with individuals. When an address is instead assigned to a specific client, or to a specific type of request, and monitored by multiple different employees, it can go a long way to relieving the deeply-ingrained anxiety that we are ignoring those who need us.

The history of technology is littered with cautionary tales of what goes wrong when new tools yield superficial convenience, but are poorly matched with fundamental human nature. E-mail is arguably one of the best examples of such unintentional consequences in recent history. It’s useful, of course, that we can communicate instantaneously, with almost no friction or cost. But humans are not network routers. Just because it’s possible for us to send and receive messages incessantly through our waking hours doesn’t mean that it is a sustainable way to exist. Technologies serve us best when we deploy their new efficiencies with intention, with an aim to improve the human condition. We shouldn’t banish e-mail, but we can no longer allow it to be used in such a way that guarantees our misery.

This excerpt is drawn from “A World Without Email,” by Cal Newport, out in March from Portfolio.