You know the feeling: It’s 4 p.m. on Sunday and your mind has just shifted into worry mode. As the weekend winds down you start to anticipate the work week ahead. Instead of enjoying your evening, you’re thinking about meetings that you haven’t prepared for and the stack of emails piling up in your inbox. You’re suffering from work-related anxiety, or the “Sunday Scaries.”
A recent poll by LinkedIn found that 80 percent of U.S. working adults experience work-related anxiety on Sundays, and the subjects of anxiety and mental health have become increasingly prominent in the national consciousness in recent years. Between work-related stress, economic anxiety, political divisions, environmental worries and the daily demands of navigating a noisy, connected world, keeping mentally stable and focused has become more demanding than ever before.
Couple this with mobile technology – that miracle tool that lives in your pocket and connects you to anybody, anywhere, at any time. Smartphones have allowed us the radical freedom to be simultaneously productive and mobile, but they’ve eroded the barrier between the work and personal spaces to such a degree that for many of us the haptic response to a buzzing phone can induce something approaching a panic attack. The American Psychological Association has found that people who constantly check their smartphones experience significantly more stress than those who don’t check their phones as frequently.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Anxiety causes burnout and lost productivity, and it’s one of the key drivers of absenteeism. However, one of the sources of our work-related anxiety, our smartphone and the constant stream of demands and concerns it conveys, can actually serve as a calmer of stress rather than an aggravator.
How is this possible? A peaceful, healthy relationship with work communication depends on both clear protocols and the right technology tools.
Take email. Email overload is a real, terrifying phenomenon. One columnist at Medium described her email-related fear this way: “Fear of not being able to answer. Fear that I did something wrong. That I forgot something. That client complained about whatever. Fear that there is something urgent I have to deal with right now and drop everything I’m currently doing. Fear that I’ll have to solve a problem ASAP and I’ll have no idea how. Fear of someone else’s idea about what I should do and what my priority should be. My inbox was like Pandora’s box. If I open it, who knows, many evils might pop out. But I’d better open it. And I’d better do it frequently. Because who knows who got pissed today and where somebody else thinks I should jump next.”
It would be hasty to think that we should dissolve the modern professional connective tissue that is email, but surely the sort of always-on anxiety described above is something none of us would wish for. Email is also prone to becoming cluttered with marketing messages, group updates and irrelevant discussion threads, making it easy for job-critical information to get lost in the noise. The fear of missing some vital piece of work-related information contributes directly to email anxiety.
Real-time workplace messaging platforms that lack curation or prioritization, like Slack, can exacerbate the problem. The nature of these platforms often invite casual banter, meaning important information can be overlooked. Likewise, the constant distraction of notifications can be a drag on productivity during work hours, leading to increased stress levels due to constant multitasking.
Managing email is an essential professional duty for many of us (at least, the 57 percent of U.S. workers with regular corporate email), but we need to engage with prioritized, curated information that helps us create value in our work. If we know that our employer is able to reach us with meaningful, supportive information independently of the chaos of email, the prospect of a buzzing phone seems a lot less scary. An engaged employee who is aligned with corporate mission and values is a company’s most valuable resource.
In this context, it makes sense to look to a communication channel other than email to convey important work-related information in a way that supports employees without overwhelming them. More broadly, we need to rethink how we communicate. We need to think about the employee first and how they want to engage with information from work. That information needs to be prioritized and targeted, and employees need to feel supported. If we can deliver on that promise, perhaps we can finally put the “Sunday Scaries” to bed.