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Why Workplace Communication Causes Stress in the Digital Era—and How to Fix It

drawing of person feeling overwhelmed by online communication

Verywell / Catherine Song

Key Takeaways

  • Workplace communication in the digital era comes with unique stressors that may contribute to burnout.
  • Setting clear boundaries is one of many strategies that workers can use to reduce stress from hyperconnectivity.
  • Experts say that workplaces could curb burnout by reforming their communications policies and methods.

Achieving inbox zero by 5 p.m. used to be the goal for many office workers. But that became mission impossible for many who switched to remote work during the pandemic and faced an onslaught of Zoom meetings, pings on Slack, old-school conference calls, text messages, and tags on shared documents—not to mention an inbox overflowing with emails that came in after hours. No wonder burnout is on the rise.

So what is it about workplace communication in the digital age that causes high stress levels and feelings of anxiety? Let’s take a look at some of the specific challenges that come with collaborating with colleagues and supervisors from behind a screen, along with tips from experts on setting boundaries for your mental health.

Stress from Digital Communications at Work

Workplace communication has been a source of stress and anxiety for people long before the digital era.

“Imagine the big boss poking their head out of their office and summoning you in, or a manager calling to get a status report on a particular project. These types of situations have always generated stress,” notes Kate Hanselman, PMHNP, a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner at Thriveworks in Stamford, Connecticut.

But now, with the switch to new technology to facilitate conversations, the boundaries between our professional and private lives have broken down. A worker doesn’t have to be in the office for their boss to call them in for an unexpected meeting—they could be cooking dinner or tucking their kids into bed when they get a request. And that feeling of needing to be “on” 24/7 can be draining.

“Information communication technologies can create stress and anxiety for workplace communication because they extend the boundaries of what is ‘work’ and what is ‘home’ for a lot of people. Especially for those who might have laptops or cellphones connected to work, the pressure to check and respond to emails outside of traditional work hours, for example, can start to add up, affecting one’s work-life balance,” explains Natalie Pennington, PhD, assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, whose work focuses on the intersection of interpersonal communication and communication technology.

Natalie Pennington, PhD

Information communication technologies can create stress and anxiety for workplace communication because they extend the boundaries of what is ‘work’ and what is ‘home’ for a lot of people.

— Natalie Pennington, PhD

Plus, the speed of digital communications can make workers feel that every message they receive requires an immediate response. Researchers have found that when a worker receives an email after business hours, they tend to overestimate how quickly the sender expects a response. The phenomenon, dubbed “the email urgency bias,” has been linked to lower feelings of well-being and higher levels of perceived job stress.

Even during business hours, the experience of basic communication with coworkers has been reduced to endless back and forth on Slack or another internal communications platform. Rather than having conversations on projects in person as you would in the office, everything is sent via instant message, which adds a whole new layer of complexity. So rather than walking over to someone’s desk in person to quickly talk out a problem, it turns into a long-winded back and forth.

Then there’s the additional level of anxiety usually reserved for the dating world: those three little dots indicating the someone is typing. When those dots pop up next to your boss’s name it gives you time to overanalyze what they might be saying, and because they know you’re online, there’s pressure to reply ASAP, even if you’re in the middle of something else.

The urgency of a message isn’t the only ambiguous part of digital communications that stresses workers out, though. The tone and intent of the message can also be left up to interpretation, causing people to worry whether they’re reading it correctly.

“Although the intended purpose of digital communication is to increase efficiency, at times it can increase a person’s time spent trying to decipher messages that are not clear or misunderstood,” says Desreen N. Dudley, PsyD, a mental health quality consultant and clinical psychologist at Teladoc. “When this is the case, stress levels rise as some employees may begin to ruminate over their perceived interpretation of a message, spend a lot of time editing their response, and evaluate themselves negatively if they feel they did not respond quickly enough out of fear of negative judgement by others.”

All of this, combined with the constant interruptions of new messages, make digital communications a significant source of stress for many workers

Stress-Free Communication Strategies for Workers

Between the pandemic still keeping some offices shuttered and people widely demanding the flexibility to work remotely, these digital communication tools will continue to be a major presence in many workers’ lives—despite the stress they can cause. The good news is that there are some ways workers can stay on top of it and reduce the emotional burden of hyperconnectivity.

It starts with setting firm boundaries between being on at work and taking some much-needed downtime.

“Set your downtime hours, communicate those with your team if need be, and make sure your digital notifications are turned off during this time. Remind yourself that the work will never be done, so take the time for yourself while you can,” says Hanselman.

Kate Hanselman, PMHNP

Remind yourself that the work will never be done, so take the time for yourself while you can.

— Kate Hanselman, PMHNP

Even while you’re working, try to remind yourself that immediate responses aren’t required for every message you receive.

“Don’t respond right away to every work-related message. Employees can structure their time management by reserving a time during the day in which they respond to messages,” Dr. Dudley suggests.

If you can’t break the habit of drafting an immediate response, consider sending it a few hours later, rather than right away.

“I am not always the best about setting email boundaries, but I have started using the ‘schedule’ feature, which allows me to type my reply but set to send it at a later time,” says Dr. Pennington. “I get the stress-relief of doing what I need on my end, but set the boundary of ‘I have done enough,’ and scheduling ensures the follow-up will occur during more traditional working hours.”

Setting New Workplace Norms

Employers can also play an important role in making workplace communication less damaging to their staff’s mental health and ultimately reducing the risk of burnout

“Part of that is modeling those behaviors (not emailing someone late or texting them too early) and part of it is being clear about best practices,” says Dr. Pennington. “For example, some folks may be stressed by the visual element of Zoom calls while working from home, so allowing those workers to have their camera off or to use the phone call-in feature may be more than sufficient to participate in the meeting and complete tasks.”

Another thing bosses can do is streamline the number of communication tools they require employees to use. Cutting down on the ways in which people can send and receive messages can “decrease the burden of having employees checking multiple platforms for work-related communications,” says Dr. Dudley.

Finally, making sure all workers are clear on what needs to be done when, and which tasks are the highest priority, can help increase productivity and make employees feel more confident that they’re doing the right thing—regardless of pressures from email and other messages.

What This Means For You

Does every email, instant message, and video chat make your stress levels spike at work? You’re not alone. Digital communication comes with unique challenges that make workers feel stressed and anxious, potentially leading to burnout.

Setting clear boundaries for yourself and breaking the habit of responding to every message the moment you receive it can help reduce stress and anxiety at work. But it’s not just employees’ responsibility to make changes—employers also play a role in ensuring digital communication at work doesn’t disrupt workers’ mental health. Consider talking to your manager about reforming your workplace’s communication expectations and policies to help combat burnout.

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2 Sources
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  1. Threlkeld K. Employee burnout report: COVID-19’s impact and 3 strategies to curb it. Indeed. Published March 11, 2021.

  2. Giurge LM, Bohns KB. You don’t need to answer right away! Receivers overestimate how quickly senders expect responses to non-urgent work emailsOrgan Behav Hum Decis Process. 2021;167:114-128. doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2021.08.002