Communication Debt and Other New Stressors

Buzz. Buzz. Buzz.

You know the sound—whatever it is that you have on your personal mobile phone settings. Your head goes up, you pull out your phone, and—regardless of what else you were doing—you check your messages. Wait, was that a text? An alert? Bad weather coming? Wait, here comes another…

Back in the days when mobile phones were new and the internet still not widely adopted by those in business, the advent of new technology was intimidating to many people. Perhaps it still is, given the number of Boomers who embraced aol.on but avoid Slack.

Anyway, back in the internet dark ages, when “internet” still had a capital “I,” I worked in government and it fell to me to create suggested policies for employee’s use of the new tools. We had to spell out when they could use the few bag phones allocated to each department, what sites were permissible to visit, and potential penalties for misuse. It was government, after all—the place where any misstep was a potential headline.

Now, imagine how those policies evolved when people starting bringing their own cell phones to work. And when email evolved to texting, and texting evolved to emojis, and sending immediate messages became a substitute for formal emails, even in the workplace. Of course, it happened over a period of time—although that’s not the same as a slow adoption period.

It all leaves us with a lot of ways to communicate at work. Email is still around, plus texting, Slack, Zoom, WhatsApp, social media follows…you get the picture. And now it seems that all this communication is stressing us out.

I saw a post the other day that someone had 1000 texts sitting there on her phone, unread. Confession: I have four email accounts; one of them was set up specifically for non-personal email and now has more than 40,000 unread messages. Of course, I can trash that type of email easily enough—but what do I do about the hundreds sitting in my other, work-related boxes, read but not acted upon?

Many of us have de-cluttered our homes but left our technology a mess. And, collectively, we are now recognizing it’s a problem. addresses it here, pointing out, “when you fall behind in a group chat, a backlog of missed messages can quickly pile up. Then, before you know it, texting starts to feel as cumbersome as drudging through work email.”

There are new discussions around defining and solving that problem now. This “communication debt” is the idea that when messages of any form pile up, it’s tantamount to getting behind on your bills. The pressure to catch up causes tension and can literally make someone sick.

When is all the personal communication just a bit too much? Maybe it’s time to set some policies…err, guidelines.

We used to think electronic communication could be confined to the eight-hour day. However, when an email is read on your phone, when an employer needs an answer right away, when you are working remote and likely outside of traditional hours…old rules are swept away. It’s enough to stress you out.

Here are some easier rules to live by:

  1. Use text messages only for the immediate. You’re running late, or need a quick fact check while you are on a client call, for example.

2. Drop the stress, and the apologies, over auto-correct. If your intent was clear, don’t add clutter to the stream.

3. Avoid putting people who don’t know each other together on a group text, unless you explain the intent and the people involved first. Including unknown numbers means you’ve already failed at open communication.

4. Email essentially replaced snail mail and should be treated with professional respect. Answer within a reasonable time, acknowledge receipt of something you were expecting (particularly when receiving something from a new contact), and clear your spam filter often. For most companies, email is a work-day solution, meaning hourly employees may not even have access to check their email after hours; salaried expectations differ from place to place.

5. Slack and other quick communications are an evolution to help us get out of “communications debt”—they don’t always require a reply and yet are a reliable way to provide quick updates to remote workers.

If this is happening in your workplace, it may be time to replace “communication debt” with a good discussion—the kind you might have with a financial advisor if the debt were monetary. Lay out expectations, then respect them. After all, there’s enough stress in life without making good communication the culprit.