Email is a very selfish tool.

Clare Burge thought that she had a good handle on her email, until she returned from a 10-day trip to Morocco in 2001 to find 10,000 new messages in her inbox. Stress took over her post-holiday glow and Burge wondered why she had even bothered to leave at all. 

Then in a moment of madness, as Burge called it, she decided to embark on a bold one-year experiment: she’d stop using email. She put an automatic response on her personal and work email accounts that asked people to call her instead. For Burge it was a life-changing moment.

“Email is a very selfish tool,” explained Burge, who now runs a Dublin-based consultancy called Get Organised. “People dump tasks into each other’s inboxes without thinking about whether they are being considerate.” The result is that “you become a slave to your inbox checking your email first thing in the morning until you go to bed.”

Most office workers can relate to Burge’s frustration with the constant flow of emails at all hours of the day and night. Email can also have a direct impact on corporate bottom lines by distracting workers from role relevant tasks to deal with unimportant messages. One researcher estimates that it takes 64 seconds to get back to work after checking a new message and other studies have shown that can add up to lost hours every day.

Because of its drag on workplace efficiency and worker wellbeing, email has come into the crosshairs of corporate policies around the globe. The same year that Burge had her breakthrough, Thierry Breton, CEO of French IT company Atos, announced a ban on internal email for the company’s 80,000 employees.

Since then email bans have become increasingly popular ways for companies to help employees maintain work-life balance and boost their productivity. Blanket bans, however, can backfire, warned Jim Harter, chief scientist of workplace management and well-being for research firm Gallup.

“On the surface it might seem like the right thing,” said Harter. “But companies have to look at the root cause of what is making employees stressed.” He points out that companies with after-hours email bans might alienate productive workers who prefer to work at more flexible times.

Email under fire

While the no email trend seems like it would be only for the most maverick of companies, its taking root in a range of industries. In Germany car makers have announced policies to limit email. A New York Times columnist wrote about tools he uses with his editors that replace email. Even Halton Housing Trust, a UK-based housing nonprofit, which manages thousands of homes, has cut email.

Halton’s CEO Nick Atkin is a vocal critic of email, though he admitted in a company blog post that effort has been far from “plain sailing”. He wrote that the challenges in getting his 280 employees to stop constantly checking their inbox “further proves the point about how people are addicted to email and as such have an irrational response when this is about to be taken away from them”.

Setting the tone

At Van Meter, an electric-parts distributor in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in the US, tackling the issue of after-hours email was one part of a more holistic program to improve company culture. About 10 years ago the company started measuring employee engagement and implementing policies that improved work-life balance for employees.

Lura McBride, chief operating officer of the 400 person company said you can tell people you want them to have a work-life balance, but unless you are bringing in some hard-and-fast strategies to tackle this then “you are just putting lip service to it”.

For McBride, the moment that changed it all, was when she realised she had formed a habit of locking her car doors when she pulled into her driveway in the evening to finish working while her four kids were tapping on the car window.

“I don’t know if I was upholding my personal boundaries,” she said. “We make sacrifices both ways, but I truly needed family to come first.”

McBride approached Van Meter’s senior leadership team and suggested that they stop sending internal emails and having calls on weekends and after 17:00 and before 07:00 on weekdays. McBride said the policy is more about respecting other people’s time, than email itself. After all when people hear their inbox ping even in off hours, they feel obligated to check the message to see if it’s important.

“Where I worked before, some people wore it as a badge of honor that they sent emails at midnight,” she said. “When I look back at that, it is embarrassing.”

Over time the policy trickled down and became a part of employees’ development plans. Now the company even shuts off employee email during vacation. McBride said she and other employees still work evenings, but if anyone has to write an email he or she shouldn’t send it until the next day unless it is responding to a client issue or is time critical. When she gets a non-urgent email after hours, she brings it up in person the next day.

“No one gets into trouble,” she said. “It’s been woven into our culture.”

Switching gears

What Burge learned during her yearlong experiment was that to successfully ditch email, companies need to find alternatives to communicate and collaborate. When she first tried to go email free in 2012 it didn’t work, because other collaborative work technologies like Slack, an office messaging app, weren’t yet developed.

“Back then I thought we couldn’t have an email free world,” she said. “Now communication tools have evolved to function better than email.”

Banning email as a first step was easy, said Lee Mallon, founder of Rarely Impossible, a Bournemouth, UK, based IT consulting firm. He made the decision after hearing Burge talk last September. “I found myself checking my phone 150 times a day,” said Mallon. Email had become “too much of a distraction and a constant annoyance”.

When he came in one day at the end of 2014 and announced the no email decision without warning, his employees were relieved, he said. Mallon told employees that anyone who violated the ban would have to work from an empty desk they dubbed “the naughty chair”. He is the only one who has had to sit there, mostly for forwarding emails from clients to team members.

Mallon said the biggest challenge in ditching email has been transitioning to other communications tools that do a better job in terms of assigning tasks or sharing documents.

“Before, email would be a repository for all communications, as well as interactions with clients and storing documents,” said Mallon. “Now we use about four different products to put things in their relevant form.”

Because it’s a small office, most urgent issues that used to come up over email are now handled in person or with a quick phone call or text. Staffers use Skype, Dropbox and Slack to keep tabs on projects and share information.

“My team communicates much better,” said Mallon, who estimates they’ve saved about 20% of the workday by getting rid of email. “Now issues get solved right away.”

Burge believes an email free world is still some time away. “I do still use email on a daily basis because I haven’t converted all seven billion on the planet,” said Burge. “Until I have gotten everyone to do this, I will still have to email people.”

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