Why communications overload is bad for us — and how to handle it

Lydia Smith
Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
Digital overload means we rarely spend time truly “switched off” from work. Photo: Getty

Unfortunately, there’s no way of getting around the deluge of emails many of us are inundated with every day.

Communication in work is important, and the modern workplace thrives on being able to keep employees, managers, and clients in touch with each other. With an increasing number of people working remotely — not just outside the office, but across different time zones — staying in contact via technology becomes even more essential.

But when we’re switching between emails, Slack, Microsoft Teams, and more, it can easily feel overwhelming and distracting.

Research by software company Rescue Time analysed the behaviour of more than 50,000 users to find that the average employee “checks in” with communications tools every six minutes. Checking in means switching to a tool while working on another productive task.

The full results showed that 35.5% of workers check their email and instant messages every three minutes or less. What’s more, only 18.6% can go more than 20 minutes without being pulled into communication. Those who use Slack spent only five minutes in between communication check ins — while non-Slack users could go eight minutes.

So what does this mean for our concentration, productivity, and health?

Being so easily distractible and interruptible throughout the day has a serious impact on our ability to concentrate. An astonishing 40% of workers never get more than 30 straight minutes of focused time in a workday, Rescue Time found.

Furthermore, it takes a considerable amount of time to turn our attention back to work after a communication distraction. A study by the University of California, Irvine found that after an employee switches their focus to another task, such as reading emails, it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to concentrate back on the original task.

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Due to technology enabling people to be in contact 24/7, a culture has developed where people feel they must be constantly available for work — which can impact mental health and wellbeing. The need to keep in constant contact, mixed with the guilt of not responding fast enough, can lead to people feeling overwhelmed and stressed.

In 2016, research by the Future Work Centre found persistently checking emails can lead to stress. In particular, stress was caused by checking emails early in the morning and late at night. “The people who reported it being most useful to them also reported the highest levels of email pressure,” researcher Richard MacKinnon said.

“But the habits we develop, the emotional reactions we have to messages, and the unwritten organisational etiquette around email, combine into a toxic source of stress which could be negatively impacting our productivity and wellbeing.”

Digital overload also means we rarely spend time truly “switched off” from work, which leaves us at risk of burnout and ill health. In 2015, the Chartered Management Institute found that UK employees unwittingly cancelled out their entire annual leave by checking emails outside of work hours.

Being overloaded by different forms of communication impacts us in other ways too. In 2005, research at London’s Institute of Psychiatry found that repeated distractions at work in the form of constant emails, text, and phone messages negatively affected IQ.

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So what can you do to combat the overload? How you use email and communications tools at work will depend on your job and your workplace. It’s not always possible to ignore instant messages, but it is possible to be more mindful about how you use Slack and other tools.

First of all, you could try editing your notifications. While some are important, others are not — if Facebook messenger distracts you at work with irrelevant messages, try muting it.

If you’re working on something challenging that requires all your focus, change your status on Slack to “busy” or “do not disturb.” If there’s something urgent, you’re still reachable by phone or email.

As useful as communication tools are, it’s essential not to use them for the sake of using them. If you’re Slacking a colleague sitting opposite you to ask them to do something, just speak to them about what you want or need.

Most importantly, allow yourself time to unplug from technology. This might mean a ban on checking emails until a certain time in the morning, or late at night. Turning on flight mode on your phone stops calls and texts coming through, and limits the temptation to look at your phone when you don’t need to.