Communication overload in the workplace

Eoin Whelan

Posted: 9 August, 2017

Dr Eoin Whelan is a lecturer at the National University of Ireland, Galway. He is also a visiting professor at the Institute d’Economie Scientifique et de Gestion, France, and a visiting researcher at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. Dr Whelan received a New Horizons award from the Council in 2015 to investigate the link between enterprise social media, individual capabilities and information overload. He joins us to mark our #LoveIrishResearch theme for August looking at the world of social media. 

Due to the novelty of social media technologies, and our experiences using them, research is only beginning to unveil how the hours dedicated to online interactions are impacting human behaviour. Enterprise social media platforms such as Jive, Chatter, and Yammer are akin to the public Facebook but are employed for internal communication and social interaction within enterprise.

One of the many challenges knowledge workers now face is the amount of enterprise social media platforms they are expected to deal with.  Communication overload is the undesirable condition arising when communication demands from ICT channels, such as social media, exceed users’ processing capacities, leading to lost productivity and quality of life. In our technology-saturated workplaces, the communication overload problem will only amplify unless we generate creative solutions. To do so, we first need to understand the actual antecedents to the communication overload predicament.

A digitally saturated world

We gathered survey data and conducted in depth interviews with knowledge workers from a variety of sectors. What we found is that the communication burden in the workplace is much more nuanced than previously thought. Firstly, the majority of workers reported regularly feeling stressed due to the mass of content they are exposed to via enterprise social media platforms. Secondly, media multitasking (i.e. attempting to do more than one task simultaneously with digital media) is central to the communication overload problem.

As one interviewee explained: “Typically a barrage of very varied messages come in. One minute you’re responding to an email about a client, the next minute it’s a snapchat discussion about a new technology, the next it’s a Chatter post on an internal team problem. It’s the constant switching I find draining.”

Thirdly, we find that deficiencies in cognitive control, particularly a fear or missing out, internet cognitive failure (mind wandering when on the web) and deficient self-regulation (unable to control internet use), explains why some people suffer communication overload more than others.

The right to disconnect

Workers are struggling to cope in today’s digitally saturated world.  Studies from a variety of disciplines have linked communication overload to stress, low morale, poor decision-making, mental health problems, and decreased performance.

Recognising the nefarious effects of corporate media platforms, the French Government introduced a new law in May 2016, ‘le droit de la déconnexion’ (the right to disconnect), to give workers some relief against the communications tsunami outside work hours. However, the workplace of the future will be even more technology-saturated, meaning workers will be exposed to larger and more diverse communication loads.

To enhance productivity and quality of life, it is vital we evolve and develop the cognitive abilities necessary to combat this communication burden.

Our studies find a clear link between cognitive control and communication overload.  Through training and education, cognitive control can be enhanced.  Organisations now need to embrace such programmes to protect employee productivity and well-being.


Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in our guest blogs are the author’s own, and do not reflect the opinions of the Irish Research Council or any employee thereof.