Digital Communication and Work Stress
E-Stress in Australian Universities

"Our vision is to provide deeper insights into digital communication and employee well-being and for the first time, explore top-down factors like psychosocial safety climate (PSC), and the experiences (including sleep and recovery) of employees which may assist policy development both in universities and other complex organisations"

In the Australian higher education sector, high email volumes and increasing levels of psychological strain (work stress) can affect employees’ health and well-being. These pressures are likely to have additional direct consequences on the recruitment and retention of high quality academic staff and the teaching of future professionals with implications for future GDP. ​As Australia’s public university sector contributes nearly $25 billion per year to the national economy,  its workforce is vital for the sector to contribute effectively to the national innovation and science agenda and deliver high quality research and teaching to over one million enrolled students.

Digital communication facilitates contact and collaboration between academic staff, students and industry. However, digital communication also encompasses negative and pervasive elements to workers and organisations which  include interruption to concentration, work flow disruption, 24/7 connectivity, and work-family conflict. In turn, digital communication is often associated with work-related stress. 

The project uses a multilevel approach to examine how organisational factors such as university digital communication protocols and the climate for psychological health (Psychosocial Safety Climate [PSC]) influence individual email load and work pressure, health, sleep and recovery using a national longitudinal design and innovative diary research. The project will also examine how university employees proactively shape their own digital communication activities (job crafting) to improve their health and work engagement. It will address a gap in research by including casual employees, so that the findings benefit all occupational groups within universities. Expected outcomes include policy frameworks to manage digital communication practices within the Australian public university sector and other knowledge intensive industries.



  1. Investigate university protocols (policies, practices, and procedures) in relation to digital communication (including email load) and expectations regarding communication (e.g., frequency, response time) and staff availability.
  2. Determine whether the development of these university protocols are related to the organisational climate (specifically Psychosocial Safety Climate [PSC]).
  3. Determine the impact of university protocols on email load.
  4. Ascertain impact of email load and work stress on emotional exhaustion, sleep, occupational fatigue, recovery, and work engagement, and identify factors that reduce its impact (e.g., job crafting).
  5. Assess PSC levels in Australian universities against national Australian Workplace Barometer (AWB) benchmarks.
Conceptual Framework



  1. 2019: Interview Human Resources Directors to investigate university protocols relating to digital communication
  2. 2020-2021: Survey university staff (including casuals) in a four-wave multi-level online survey to measure emotional exhaustion, sleep, occupational fatigue, recovery, and work engagement; and identify factors that reduce the impact of work stress (e.g., job crafting)
  3. 2022: Employ diary studies via smartphones to incorporate a real time measure of email load, email volume, and reports of spill-over impact in the non-work domain by significant others in the home domain.
  4. 2022: Assess PSC levels in universities against national AWB benchmarks.



The lost productivity cost of depression among employees is estimated to cost Australian employers $6.3 billion per year. In addition to assisting university management to attain healthier work environments, the project is likely to have translational importance for other Australian workers, communities and industries in three ways:

1. Benefits to workers

Provide empirical evidence of current levels of PSC experienced by personnel across universities which can be compared against national surveillance standards.

2. Benefits and significance to Australia’s higher education sector
Provide participating HR Directors with statistical information that compares their university across universities which will facilitate the translation of this new information into new protocols and practices to advocate for effective digital communication policies, stronger PSC, and higher levels of employee well-being.

3. Benefits to industry and value for money
Supply new insights for industries, particularly sectors that employ knowledge workers, so that best practices can be implemented.

Research Team

Chief Investigators
Advisory Group
  • ​Kathy Harrington, Division Industrial Officer, National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU)
  • Rickie Kelly, Manager: Work Health and Safety People, Talent and Culture, University of South Australia | Mawson Lakes Campus
  • Associate Professor Steve Milanese, Director of the International Centre for Allied Health Evidence, Sansom Institute, University of South Australia    
  • Scott Burnell, AUSA President, Health, Safety & Wellbeing | Corporate Services, Griffith University | Gold Coast Campus 
  • Paul Sherlock, Chief Information Officer (Library and IT), Information Strategy and Technology Services, University of South Australia
  • Alan Brideson, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer, University of South Australia | City West Campus
"Understanding and reducing the shackles of digital communication should yield benefits for employees and organisations through reducing the negative aspects of digital communication and creating more time to achieve substantive work goals"

Pignata, S. (in press). ‘Stress and well-being in Australian Universities’, in In R. J. Burke & S Pignata, Handbook of Research on Stress and Well-being in the Public Sector. London: Edward Elgar.

Pignata, S., Winefield, A., Boyd, C., & Provis, C. (2018). A qualitative study of HR/OHS stress interventions in Australian universities. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health15, 103–119. DOI: 10.3390/ijerph15010103

Pignata, S., Lushington, K., Sloan, J., & Buchanan, F. (2015). Employees’ perceptions of email communication, volume and management strategies in an Australian university. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 37, 159–171. DOI: 10.1080/1360080X.2015.1019121

Burke, R. J. & Pignata, S. (2020). Handbook of Research on Stress and Well-being in the Public Sector. UK: Edward Elgar.

Pignata, S. ‘Stress in universities: Initiatives to enhance well-being’ In R. J. Burke & S. Pignata (2020). Handbook of Research on Stress and Well-being in the Public Sector. UK: Edward Elgar.

​Neser, D., Lushington, K., Zadow, A., Potter, R., Parkin, A., Richter, S., Pignata, S., Afsharian, A., Bakker, A., Dollard, M.F. (2023). Work, Digital Stress and Wellbeing Survey Report.


Conference Presentations

Pignata, S. (2019). ‘Improving work environments in Australian universities’. Paper presented in a symposium on Quality of working life in universities: The contribution of EWOP psychologists, EAWOP Congress, Turin, Italy, 29 May – 1 June.