Nudging Employees to Reduce Email Usage: Paper Summary

Intervention · Employment and Work Performance

Dutch healthcare workers were able to reduce their email usage through three nudges. But do nudges limit freedom of choice?

Email overuse can wreak havoc on our working lives. But nudges can help – and they don’t need to limit freedoms.

We can’t live with it and we can’t live without it – that’s right, we’re talking about email. 

While email is a cornerstone of modern professional life, its negative side effects are well-documented. Email usage has been empirically associated with lower work quality, increased burnout, and decreased work satisfaction. As so eloquently put by tech guru Cal Newport, “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.”1 

Plenty of firms have piloted strategies to reduce email overload, most commonly by restricting email usage.2 While these techniques see improvement, are there non-intrusive ways to help us break our email chains? 

Nudges are small, subtle hints designed to get people to act a certain way. Plenty of our decisions are guided by subtle nudges, from what appetizer to get at a restaurant to which energy plan to choose for our homes.

But there are still two big complaints about nudges: do they take away our freedom, and do they really work?

Bringing nudges to email reduction

In this study from Behavioral Public Policy, researchers developed a series of nudges to reduce email usage amongst healthcare workers in a large Dutch organization – a group known for their reliance on email. The three nudges included:

  1. Opinion Leader Nudge: Using influencers within organizations to set social norms. Think of it as the "cool kids" effect. If your team lead cuts down on emails, chances are you'll think twice before sending one out too.
  2. Rule-of-Thumb: A simple guideline to help decision-making. Something like: "If it can be said in two sentences, use chat instead of email."
  3. Self-Nudges: Individual reminders to check our habits. Imagine your computer gently suggesting, "You've sent 50 emails today, fancy a break?"

First, a survey found that workers didn’t perceive these nudges as controlling – across the board, respondents thought that they adequately preserved autonomy. Researchers used standard methods like limiting email access, public praise, and financial incentives as a point of comparison. Survey respondents also expected the nudges to be effective in a real-world context.

Then, the team tested their nudges on more than 4,000 healthcare workers. The workers thought that the nudges were both less intrusive and worked better than the old-school ways. 

Even better? When these nudges were combined, they had a bigger effect. Over the next two months, the organization saw a significant decrease in the amount of emails sent by their workers. In other words, the nudges didn’t just seem like they would work – they actually did.

Why should we care?

Every time our inbox beeps, we’re distracted. It makes us less efficient and, according to science, a lot more anxious.3 But there are non-restrictive ways to discourage our persistent overreliance on email.

When they’re well thought-out, nudges aren't deceptive tools infringing on our freedom of choice. They can guide us to make better decisions more easily, quickly, and on our own.

And it's not just about emails. Nudges are used in many different parts of our lives. Want to exercise more? Reduce your screen time? A well-thought-out nudge might be the gentle push you need.

For organizations, this means an evolution in policy-making. Rather than restrictive rules or incentive-driven models, this study shows that understanding human behavior and designing interventions around it can lead to impactful outcomes. After all, it's not about working harder, it’s about working smarter.


  1. Newport, C. (2021). Email is making us miserable. The New Yorker, Condé Nast. Retrieved from:
  2. Perlow, L. A. & Porter, J. (2009). Making time off predictable - and required. Harvard Business Review, Harvard Business Publishing. Retrieved from:
  3. See 1
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