Digital debt: when Slack and Zoom kill your productivity... and mental health

Jul 06, 2023

5 mins

Digital debt: when Slack and Zoom kill your productivity... and mental health
Lorraine Posthuma

Freelance translator and journalist

We can’t do our jobs without communicating and, today, we can’t communicate without technology. Tools like Slack, Zoom, and email have become indispensable for employees — especially those who work remotely or in hybrid setups. Yet according to a recent survey by Microsoft, the constant influx of information, emails, and meetings is taking a toll on workers, making them less productive and less creative. In addition, it’s affecting their health. Employees, scrambling to keep pace with the output of these communication platforms, are accumulating what Microsoft aptly terms “digital debt.” So are these modern tools helping or harming us?

Octavia Goredema, career coach at Twenty Ten Agency and author of PREP, PUSH, PIVOT, remembers what the pipeline of communication used to look like: “When I started my career over two decades ago, we sent detailed and important messages via fax, and we traveled huge distances for in-person meetings.” Now, someone in the US can hop on a Zoom call and resolve issues with a business partner in Europe or Asia within seconds. “It’s pretty incredible to see how our communication has changed so radically in a relatively short space of time.”

Working with these platforms, however, isn’t always smooth sailing. Sending and receiving messages throughout the day takes our concentration away from the tasks we were in the middle of completing. “Not only is an environment created in which everyone is distracted, but it’s hard to focus because things are fighting for our attention even when they aren’t urgent or important,” says Nouran Smogluk. Smogluk works in a remote leadership position for Komoot, a route planning app. As the company’s former director of customer support, she understands what it’s like to be responsible for answering a million pings.

Some employees receive hundreds of texts, emails, and notifications in a single day. This makes it hard to discern which messages to read and which to ignore. Rebecca O’Brien, a stress management coach, understands how challenging this is for our brains. “The constant back-and-forth use of several communication tools can affect our focus, concentration, and working memory,” she says. “When we start finding it difficult to pay attention, this can then lead to poorer performance and lessen our self-confidence.”

Out of the 3,000 working adults in the US and UK who were surveyed by Loom, a video messaging platform designed for the workplace, 91% said they’ve had their digital messages misunderstood while 47% overthink the emails they write. “Interpreting messages sent by communication channels can be stressful,” explains Goredema, “because it can be hard to gauge the tone, intent, or importance.” According to the same Loom report, 18 minutes per misunderstanding is spent on resolving the situation, and 19 minutes per day is spent re-reading and overthinking emails. This results in a significant amount of time lost to deciphering and analyzing messages.

Remote workers, in particular, are usually expected to respond immediately. Goredema says, “When you’re a remote employee, your responsiveness to notifications is often one of the few ways you can demonstrate that you’re present, engaged, and working.” Because of this, many remote workers feel the need to be accessible all the time, and this also creates stress.

A report in March 2022 conducted by The Conference Board, a think tank specializing in business research and insights, surveyed 1,300 professionals and found that one of the biggest concerns for fully-remote workers was work-life boundaries. Nearly half of participants were worried about the inability to unplug from work, and over one-third were apprehensive about the constant expectation to be available. Marissa McKool, a career coach for women in public health, believes, “Remote workers feel pressure to check and respond to emails outside of working hours and accept requests for early or late Zoom meetings, which leads to overworking and burning out.”

According to McKool, workers should acknowledge that they have a say in the matter. “When you recognize your choice, then you are more empowered to say no, find alternative solutions, or set boundaries,” she explains. We sometimes focus on aspects of work that are out of our control, like the high turnover rate our company is experiencing. “This leads our brains to find reasons to continue to overwork and always be available,” McKool points out. “Instead, if you shift your focus to what is in your control, then you are able to find and negotiate creative solutions.”

O’Brien offers some practical advice: “Remote workers need to establish a structured schedule with their workload, daily tasks, boundaries, and breaks to recharge, which promotes mental well-being.” She also notes it’s important for remote workers to organize their home office or work environment so it’s conducive to productivity.

The fewer digital tools you have, the better, in Smogluk’s opinion. “The list in my current job is upwards of 30. This is an unreasonable amount of complexity to force every employee to deal with on a daily basis,” she confides. When workers are required to use too many platforms, they often become distracted and overwhelmed — which defeats the purpose of the tools in the first place.

So how is all this digital communication affecting the mental health of workers?

Technology-related stress is real and, according to a study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior on the negative side effects of the digital workplace, this stress can lead to distraction, overload, addiction, anxiety, exhaustion and, eventually, burnout. Almost 60% of the American workers surveyed in Aflac’s 2022 WorkForces report said they’re experiencing moderate to very high levels of burnout. This percentage is higher than burnout levels reported in 2021, and even higher than burnout levels recorded at the height of the pandemic in 2020.

“Burnout is a real issue that I see via my work as a career coach,” says Goredema. “I lead workshops for employees at companies across the world, and one of the most common questions I get asked is, ‘How do I handle this? I’m constantly in virtual meetings and fielding messages and requests, and I feel like I can’t keep up.’”

To combat the overwhelming feeling of digital debt, here’s what our experts suggest:

Wake up

We can start minimizing the negative impact digital communication has on our health only when we’re aware of what’s happening. “Before trying to change your behavior and actions, you first have to understand why you are struggling to create boundaries around your digital communication,” McKool explains. “Once you understand why, then you can work to make decisions and take actions that address those reasons.”

Talk to your boss

An effective way to keep these tools from hindering your job performance is to have a conversation with your boss, which creates an opportunity to find a solution together. Let them know what you’re experiencing, whether it’s fatigue from constantly being connected, or overwhelm from being expected to instantly respond to every message. “Decide with your manager what the communication protocols are for critical and time-sensitive issues too,” advises Goredema, “and remember, not all messages need an immediate response.”

Set boundaries

Establishing boundaries and sticking to them is difficult for many employees. “They struggle to stop overworking or set work boundaries because they feel guilty, or are worried it will appear that they aren’t working hard enough,” McKool says. But in order to create a healthy work environment for ourselves, boundaries need to be put in place and followed too.

Work differently

Our work is important, but so are the health and well-being of our minds and bodies. O’Brien suggests these practices: “Answer emails at specific times during the day and turn off notifications outside of work hours. Put your phone in another room if you’re struggling to focus. Schedule a few 10-minute breaks and make an effort to move throughout the day.” Little changes like these can help improve our mental and physical health.

Take responsibility

It’s worth the effort to use these communication tools responsibly, so they benefit rather than hinder you. Our experts agree that setting boundaries and unplugging are vital to being happier and healthier at work. “When the workday ends, step away from your devices so you have time to recharge,” Goredema advises. “Take time to unplug and enjoy non-digital activities,” agrees O’Brien. By confidently shifting the narrative surrounding digital debt, we can change the way we work.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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