Understanding and dealing with communication fatigue
Stumbling across the new fancy word
83 unread mails, 22 slack messages and my google calendar blue enough with meetings to set the tone for my Monday morning. I sat there staring at my laptop with dread, having procrastinated on opening messages and mails the earlier week had a cascading effect and now it had spiralled out of control. I didn’t know where to start so I did what I do best, left it for later. Over the next few weeks, it started affecting my work and soon my inefficiency in responses was brought to my notice. It was a new kind of low, asking myself “How can someone develop an incompetency in replying to messages? Isn’t it fairly straightforward?” and more-so “How are all these people around me doing it so well, how are they completely untouched by the dread of their inbox that haunts me in my dreams?”. I knew I had to get my act together so I reached out to our friend Google to see if there were more people like me.
As a matter of fact, there were. A lot of them in fact, enough to prompt esteemed journals like The Entrepreneur, The Newyorker and Forbes to cover the phenomenon. Even the National Geographic got a piece of that, interesting right? The phenomenon in question is called Communication fatigue. I’d like to summarise it as the drained out feeling one gets due to over-communication on channels (eg. Slack, Email, WhatsApp).
Living with the pandora’s box of information
It has largely been the pandemic’s effect, having replaced thousands of small effortless human interactions in the office with tings and buzzes on a screen, this has opened us up to a pandora’s box of information that we have to engage with on a daily basis coming at a cost of our mental health. Very early into my digging into the topic, I realised that I had really underestimated the problem and it’s much much bigger than how it appeared. Here are some facts from the Wakefield research conducted by the email platform Superhuman :
- An overwhelming majority of office workers (89%) said daily work tasks such as sorting through an inbox of unopened emails or navigating incoming Slack or Teams messages is one of the most unpleasant parts of working remotely.
- More than one-third of office workers (38%) said this ‘email fatigue is likely to push them to quit their jobs.
- The sentiment is more pronounced among younger workers. For office workers 40 or under, more than half (51%) listed the volume of emails and Slack or Teams messages they received as a top reason for why they’d consider leaving their jobs.
Oof, heavy! It took me a couple of hours to comprehend the scale of the problem, the ripple effects of the pandemic had not just taken a toll on me but countless others stuck in the blues of unread messages. Now that I wasn’t feeling singled out with this problem, a weird sense of relief settled in, you know the kind when you realise that your best friend has flunked too? yes, that! but scaled up a notch. For what it’s worth at least I wasn’t feeling incompetent. But, with this realisation also came curiosity to understand how are individuals and organisations dealing with this. Over a few hours of research and me experimenting with some of these solutions for a couple of weeks, I learned that although you cannot completely get out of it, there are things that you and your organisation can do to be a lot more efficient while being much kinder to your mental health. Here’s me attempting at illustrating the same.
What I did and how it helped me
After having run through hours of content during office hours, I had to put my learnings to effect. So here’s a collection of tried and tested solutions that worked really well for me and might be helpful to you.
Time-box your communication
So this might look different for different people so take this with a pinch of salt. The idea is to not be constantly monitoring your messages and emails. Understand how important each channel is for your day to day operations and set the frequencies for checking them respectively. Here’s how it translated for me:
- Slack: Every hour
- Email: Thrice a day (Once in the morning, after lunch and then before concluding my day)
- Asana: Twice a day (Once in the morning and once after lunch)
I am still experimenting with the cadences but the above seem to be working very smoothly for me. As I get more used to this, I intend to regulate my notifications to allow only the most important messages to pass through during the time I am not monitoring my channels.
Deal with your Inbox
While I can go ranting about the horrible user experience Gmail provides, I guess we’ll have to live with it. The multiple unread emails on an inbox that spans pages and pages was not a fun sight and probably the root cause of all my problems with mail. Here how I solved it:
- Start archiving: I can’t understate the importance of this practice. The emails that you do not need to address anymore deserves no place in your inbox or your mind. Archive all the mail threads once they have been dealt with for good so they stay out of your sight and you can focus on the more important things.
- Use labels: Remember those kids in school who used to put colour-coded stickers to bookmark important things on their textbook, well it turns out they were way ahead of their time. Colour-coded labels are a one-way ticket to sanity in your inbox. I tried to figure out the top 5 reasons I get emails and made labels for them. So now whenever a mail hits my inbox and I can’t respond to it immediately, I label it so that the next time I see it I know exactly what needs to be done. To see how you can do this, check out this The Verge article: https://www.theverge.com/21315894/gmail-labels-inbox-organize-how-to-google
Virtual time off
Leaving the simplest solution for the last, take some time off your screen. After implementing all these solutions, constant communication can still leave you drained. As social animals we are not meant to be stuck behind a screen, it’s not natural to us and it shows. So block out some time on the calendar for yourself, turn off notifications, close that laptop for a while. This practice however simple it sounds has been the most effective. Dedicated 15–20 minutes off devices every day contributed significantly to my efficiency.
What can organisations do to help their kin
This being a collective problem of a majority of employees by large becomes an organisational problem needing to be solved at an organisation level. As a lot of organisations across the globe have realised that the work from home transition might be a little longer than initially anticipated with some accepting it as more of a permanent solution, a lot of them are acknowledging the problems that come with it and setting a great precedent for solving them. I’ll draw from some of the organisations that have been making strides in this direction to make the day to day of their employees a little easier. So here goes:
Radio silence after work hours — Zerodha
Nithin Kamath recently took to Twitter to announce no work chats after 6 pm which took Twitterati by a storm. Although difficult to implement, having a deadline for communications can do a lot of good for the organisation and the employees:
- Conversations won’t linger along longer than they have to. limited time — -> focused conversations — -> higher efficiency.
- dedicated time for radio silence will promote creativity and be a hotbed for new ideas. ideation becomes tough when you keep getting bombarded with update requests.
- Employees will have dedicated recharge time and will come back stronger and sharper (not a Horlicks Product placement) the next day.
4 day work week — OYO, Swiggy
From one controversial point to another, Oyo and Swiggy have moved to a 4 day work week and are leading by example. In a country where startups are finding it difficult to implement 5 day work weeks, this move is almost scandalous. A 4 day work week is not all rosy though, it has its own hick-ups like what happens to the clients when the client servicing team has taken an off on a Wednesday. Acknowledging that there are technicalities to navigate around, here are some arguments in favour of that.
- Increased Productivity: When Microsoft Japan did a test run on this concept, they found that productivity of employees went up by 40% as efficiency increased company-wide owing to more condensed work schedules and less stressed employees.
- Low attrition: People have more time to recuperate and rest leads to gains in employee satisfaction significantly reducing attrition and increasing the Employee happiness index
For further study, here’s a case for 4 day work week from a more pragmatic lens: https://www.forbes.com/sites/nextavenue/2020/02/06/the-4-day-workweek-has-its-time-come/?sh=9567fc151d03
Meeting free days — Facebook, Spotify, Razorpay
Jumping to a more accessible solution, Meeting free days has seen the light of day with a lot more organisations than the solutions mentioned above while being just as effective. No meeting days has been a proven solution and is quickly moving from early adopter organisations to more mainstream corporate with the pandemic acting as a catalyst. The following have been the most acknowledged benefits:
- Employees stay focussed for longer: Unproductive meetings are a waste of time by themselves but there is a higher cost paid for context switching. On average it takes 23 mins for people to get back into their flow, now multiply that with the average number of meetings per person in your organisation. You get the math.
- Focusses on execution: Most managers spend about 35% of their time in meetings. Implementing no-meeting days pushes everyone to be doers and push through piles of work that does not require collaboration.
- Increases employee engagement in meetings: For context, nearly 73% of employees admit to doing other work during meetings. Clearing the schedule for a day enables people to schedule meetings for the rest of the week as all the schedules are in sync.
For reference, here’s an elaborate argument for no meeting days: https://blog.flock.com/no-meeting-days#:~:text=A
In Conclusion (or a TL: DR depending on your patience)
Communication Fatigue is real and among many other problems has been amplified with the ripple effects of the pandemic. If you are going through it, you’re not alone and you don’t have to dismiss it. There are tangible steps that you can take to improve how you deal with an information overload that comes with the countless messages that you are receiving while focussing on your mental health in the process. And while you do this and make yourself more efficient in handling incoming messages across channels, an empathetic and supportive organisation goes a long way in building a better, more efficient and most importantly a healthier work from home ecosystem.