In this digitally driven era, managing the influx of information is a daily battle, and it can seem like an uphill struggle trying to keep up.
We all know the feeling of being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information coming at us from all angles, and the workplace is no exception.
Employees are increasingly finding themselves in a communication overload, trying to sift through emails, text messages, notifications, and other forms of communication while also juggling deadlines and projects.
Simply relying on your employees to be able to deal with this themselves is not a viable solution, which is why it’s important to recognize communication overload and be proactive in helping your team manage it.
What is Communication Overload?
Have you ever felt completely overwhelmed by the volume of messages and information you're receiving at a given moment? That's communication overload.
It's a curse of the modern age that has become more and more of a problem as technology advances. Being always available and able to communicate with anyone at any time has its advantages, but it's also a major stress factor - both personally and professionally.
When the influx of information is too much to handle, our brains become overwhelmed as they try to process it all. This leads to elevated levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and can cause a variety of issues, including confusion, memory loss, and anxiety.
It is not easy to manage information overload in one's personal life, but it is achievable because we can set our own limits and boundaries. When it comes to the workplace though, things can get a lot more complicated.
Employees simply don't have the luxury of taking a break from their work emails or chats when they are feeling overwhelmed, but if left unmanaged, communication overload can lead to a variety of issues:
- 35% feel that having to keep up with today’s “information overload” leaves them feeling stressed out, unable to relax, and anxious
- 65% say that the need to keep track of a great deal of information is a “major concern” in their lives
- 33% felt they were suffering from poor health due to information overload.
- 66% reported tension with their co-workers and management as well as reduced job satisfaction.
- 62% admitted their social and professional relationships were suffering.
And these studies were conducted a decade ago. Imagine how much this has grown since then.
The Impact of Information Overload at Work
This is why it's vital for companies to take steps to manage this problem otherwise information overload will hurt your business in more than one way:
1. Employee Burnout
It is often assumed that burnout is caused by overwork, but how people experience their workload has a much bigger impact on burnout than hours worked.
Being under constant stress and feeling like you can't get on top of everything can be draining, leading to exhaustion, disengagement, and ultimately, burnout.
Unfortunately, burnout has become an accepted reality for many workers, but the organizational cost of this problem is much higher than you may think. Employees who report feeling burned out at work are:
- 63% more likely to take a sick day
- Half as likely to discuss how to approach performance goals with their manager
- 23% more likely to visit the emergency room
- 2.6 times as likely to leave their current employer
- 13% less confident in their performance
In short, employee burnout, if left unmanaged, can easily snowball into a massive organizational problem, as it not only affects performance but also increases the risk of turnover.
2. Inefficiency & Poor Quality of Work
The constant stream of information also leads to something called context switching, which is detrimental to productivity.
Let's say you're in the midst of preparing your presentation for tomorrow morning's meeting and you get a message from your boss asking if you could send them last year's data for their presentations. Sure, it'll just take a minute, so you jump right on it.
You go back to doing your presentation, but then your chat group pings you with a funny gif. It's right there, it'll take a second, so you check it out, maybe comment on it, then go back to your presentation. Where did you leave off?
Then your colleague sends you an update on their project and you start to discuss it. 15 minutes later, you realize that you were mid-sentence in your presentation and have completely forgotten what it was about.
This is context switching and it's a real productivity killer. As your brain switches between tasks, you're spending more time getting back up to speed than if you'd just stayed focused on one thing.
Context switching is basically an involuntary form of multitasking, where employees are switching between different tasks and sources of information - and multitasking is a myth.
Even if you think it's working for you, the truth is that our brains aren't designed to focus on two things at the same time. What you are doing whilst multitasking is simply rapidly switching from one task to another, and each time you do that, it takes a toll on your cognitive abilities - and that reflects in your productivity.
This can also lead to something called workplace paralysis. This is the state people find themselves in when they have so many tasks at hand that they become unable to focus on and complete even a single one of them.
And it's not always due to a lot of urgent tasks, but rather a constant stream of them, because each new message we receive, our brains basically see as a new task that needs to be handled.
The ping from a colleague about their project, the message from HR about the paid leave requested, the company announced in the group chat - they all feel like they need to be responded to in a timely manner.
And as you try to juggle them all, your stress levels rise, your focus and productivity decrease, and you find yourself stuck in a constant loop of not being able to get anything done.
3. Decreased Job Satisfaction and Engagement
We all know how it feels to be constantly overwhelmed, and we don't need science to tell us that this feeling is not conducive to a positive work experience.
But there's also hard data that shows the negative effect of information overload on job satisfaction, especially so when it comes to knowledge workers. The same study also found a significant correlation between psychological pressure and information overload.
And if your employees are stressed, overwhelmed, and overall dissatisfied with their jobs their engagement levels are going to take a hit, which again means lower productivity, worse quality of work, and higher turnover rates.
What Causes Communication Overload?
At this point, we have a pretty good idea of what the consequences of communication overload are, but what causes it in the first place?
And let's not jump to conclusions. Sure, the never-ending stream of messages, emails, and notifications looks like the culprit, but before we can address the issue, we need to identify the underlying cause.
It's not just the abundance of information we receive, but the value we assign to it.
Our Brains Love Novelty
I'm not going to bore you with the exact neuroscience behind this behavior but simply put: our brains love novelty.
Our prefrontal cortex is easily distracted by shiny new information and even rewards us for seeking it in the form of a dopamine rush.
So every time we receive a new message, notification, or email, our brain instantly tells us to go take a look and the act of doing so triggers the same reward system that's active when you eat a good piece of chocolate.
What that means is, that the part of the brain you need to focus on a task, is the very same one that will sabotage you when it comes to ignoring the overwhelming amount of incoming information.
Urgent vs Important: Understanding the Difference
One of the ways in which modern communication exacerbates information overload is by ignoring the distinctions between urgent and important.
Let's take email as an example. When you receive a new email, there is no way of telling if it needs immediate attention or not before you actually read it. So you'll have to read each and every one of them to make that determination, and that quickly leads to overload.
Add to that the cognitive load of deciding if you need to respond to it right away or if it can wait, and evaluating social, economic, or job-related consequences if I don’t answer... you might not be doing it consciously, but the process is taking up a lot more of your time than you think.