Is E-mail Activity A False Image of Busyness During A Pandemic?

“Working Remotely” meme

Right now workers are just beginning to phase back into a normal routine after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down most of the country for over two months.

Many Americans transitioned from the crowded office space to working remotely from home. While for some this means more of a work-life balance and more time spent with family, as opposed to the old format, a long commute to and from work and hours away from the comfort of one’s own space.

With that all being said, how is this long-term work from home model affecting workers and their mental health during the workday? How is it affecting morale from a management standpoint?

One of the biggest questions employees may be asking themselves is how can they seem productive? With some, that comes by answering more emails as quickly as possible so employees can seem more visible without being seen physically working. But in that case employees are most likely giving less thought to a topic and instead creating extra work and more room for confusion.

Busyness as Proxy for Productivity

Cal Newport presents a theory titled “Busyness as Proxy for Productivity” from his book Deep Work which states,

“In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.”

— Newport et al., 2016

While those in higher management positions may find being “more visible” means being “more productive”, Newport argues that this constant need to answer emails and constant communication distracts employees from an ability to think deeply about the complexities of our work.

Mental Health and Stress when Working from Home

Although many feel that they are getting time back in their day by avoiding commutes or other factors that involve being in the office, research is showing that employees are spending more time logging in remotely past standard work hours.

In an article titled “Three Hours Longer, the Pandemic Workday Has Obliterated Work-life Balance” authors Michelle F Davis and Jeff Green argue that because employees have no commute time and nothing to do in the evening they are “working” more often because of a blurred line between home and work space.

“Huda Idrees, the chief executive officer of Dot Health, a Toronto-based technology startup, confirms her 15 employees are working, on average, 12-hour days, up from 9 hours pre-pandemic. “We’re at our computers very early because there’s no commute time,” she said. “And because no one is going out in the evenings, we’re also always there.”

— Davis and Green et al., 2020

How to Create a Healthy Space

As employees continue to adjust to this workflow- an end may not be in sight even when businesses start opening. So how can employees protect their mental health while being productive? One of the biggest tips from the Harvard Business Review is to “quit at quitting time” to jumpstart productivity for the next day.

Below is a video with tips for working from home from the Harvard Business Review.


Davis, M. F., & Green, J. (2020, April 23). Three Hours Longer, the Pandemic Workday Has Obliterated Work-Life Balance. Retrieved May 29, 2020, from

LaPierre, S., & Cohen, P. (Producers), & Robinson, A. (Director). (2020, March 11). How to Actually Work…When You’re Working from Home [Video file]. Retrieved May 29, 2020, from

Newport, C. (2016). Deep Work (1st ed., p. 46). New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing.

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