Is instant messaging at work stressing us out?

Lydia Smith
·Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
Work chat apps have their uses but could also be a source of stress. Photo: Getty

Gone are the days when email was the main form of communication between employers and colleagues. Now, instant messaging – aka, online chat – has become an easy communications channel for many workplaces.

A huge number of companies are investing in apps and platforms such as Google Hangouts (GOOGL), Microsoft Teams (MSFT) and Flock. Since it was launched in 2013, Slack (WORK), now has more than 10 million daily users around the world – and it’s now used by 65 of the Fortune 100.

Used in the right way, instant messaging can improve engagement, productivity and collaboration - allowing coworkers to exchange ideas and bosses to give direction without the need for long, dreary missives.

But if you’ve ever received multiple notifications when trying to get on with your work and felt like shutting off your computer, you’re not alone. While some love the simplicity of instant messaging, others find that having yet another form of communication is simply an added source of stress.

“Quite simply, we as human beings cannot perform optimally when we are trying to do multiple tasks, let alone when we are repeatedly distracted,” says Suki Bassi from the organisation Happy Maven, which promotes health and wellbeing at work. “Instant messaging is turbo-charged distraction and by its very nature demands our instant attention.”

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Put simply, messaging platforms are noisy when used by an entire organisation. There are multiple groups for different teams, topics and more – and of course the odd GIF – making it far too easy to become distracted, frustrated and stressed.

Research has shown that having several streams of electronic information comes at a big mental price. According to a study by Stanford University, media multi-taskers who are regularly bombarded instant messages, emails, texts and more do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time.

“And in my own experience, gained in many diverse workplaces, employees tell me of the increased anxiety and stress that instant messaging brings,” Bassi says. “Its artificial sense of urgency derails concentration, impairs creativity and impacts productivity. What can seem to be a very simple ask via instant messaging can trump whatever else a person is working on.

“Another study conducted by the University of California, Irvine, discovered that it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to refocus on a task after an interruption,” she adds. “Even if you choose not to reply straight away, seeing the notification of a new message will already have triggered a cortisol response, leading to the reported increased anxiety.”

Many of us are already struggle to ‘switch off’ when it comes to work, checking our emails first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Instant messaging is yet another way for our personal time to be interrupted, particularly if we use it on our phones and personal devices.

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“So employees are not even free during their lunch breaks, commutes or even during their evenings and weekends. This takes its toll,” Bassi explains. “It takes its toll on mental health, on rest and recharge time, on personal, social and family time. And increasingly sets our default work setting as 'always on'.

“This is a dangerous precedent and we are already beginning to see the impact on increased reporting of stress, mental health issues and burnout.”

A huge number of businesses rely on messaging platforms, which is proof there are advantages. It depends on the way they are used, however. Created for instant communication, it allows employees to collaborate and share information quickly and effectively, particularly if colleagues know to check certain groups or threads and aren’t added unnecessarily to others.

However, it’s not always the best form of communication for ongoing conversations where important decisions may be made. You can’t guarantee people are going to see a Slack message, especially if they’re busy with work.

Bassi advises setting boundaries to avoid becoming overwhelmed with messages, too. “Turn off all sound and pop up notifications to all instant messaging platforms, work and personal. That way you get to choose when, and how often, you check them at a time that you are able to dedicate your attention to reply,” she says. “If you are concerned about missing something important you will still be able to see items requiring your attention in the task bar or you can use settings to give priority to messages from certain people.”

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It’s also important to schedule in daily periods of interrupted work time, whether it is to work through specific tasks, for creative thinking or troubleshooting, she adds. During these periods, you can show yourself as “busy” or “away” from messaging platforms. And if you can avoid it, don’t download work instant messaging apps to your personal devices.

“And I strongly believe that the onus should not just be on individuals to manage their use of instant messaging,” Bassi adds. “Companies will increasingly have to think about the impact that constant distractions has on productivity, creativity and employee wellbeing and whether their duty of care extends to the impact of such apps when their people are not at work.”