For the first time in recent months, the light at the end of the tunnel is no longer the COVID-19 train threatening to decimate business, smash operations and flatten employee morale. Vaccination is widespread, cities are loosening restrictions – heck,  there are even fans in the stands at Major League ball games. That light is supposed relief for the U.S. worker who will soon be logging in at the office from that desk they just dusted off.

So, employees should be breathing a sigh of relief that the office is opening, soon they’ll be gossiping around the water cooler, they won’t be shooing kids and pets away from that Zoom meeting. It is a new day. Right?

Not so fast. Today, like every day, 5 quintillion bytes will be created; in 2020, 1.7 megabytes of new information is minted every second for every human on earth; yet only 0.5 percent of all data is ever analyzed or used.

Business Up, Worker Productivity Down

Many employees report that their productivity is in a data-induced death spiral – whether remote or at the office. According to a recent report in Tech Republic, a survey of 2,000 remote U.K. workers showed that 18 percent suffered from “information overload,” (also called “data overload,”) and 8 percent were overwhelmed by too much data and too many apps they’re meant to check each day.

But these frustrations are not limited to at-home workers. According to an article posted on WorkZone‘s website, a study of managers in the U.S., U.K., Hong Kong, Singapore, and Australia yielded that 25 percent of workers reported information overload was leading to poor health and significant stress; 33 percent of managers also reported poor health due to a plethora of data.

Digital Data Tools Drowning Employees

So, what is the source of this soul-sucking, efficiency-crushing, progress-stalling data? The very companies that employees serve. That’s right – the digital data tools that employers think make employees nimbler, better informed and more effective are doing the exact opposite. Consider a 2021 workplace relevance report from Coveo; the results revealed myriad alarming effects of data overload, including:

  • Workers spend 2.5 hours daily searching for information needed to do their jobs – which in a workforce of 1,000 translates to 655,000 work hours wasted every year
  • 41 percent of all information provided to employees is irrelevant to their specific job role
  • 16 percent of the respondents are ready to quit due to data-finding frustrations
  • Nearly 50 percent are less engaged in their work and feel less confident in their daily activities

When Coveo looked even more specifically at the data, it found workers were unsure if the information they had was out of date (39%) accurate (25%) or even allowed to be shared (25%). 

In short, people are overwhelmed, less engaged and less confident. And literally ill.

The infrastructures that organizations build to make reams of information available in a few clicks, empower employees by providing access to information and data, and enable them to work from anywhere unfortunately, are not always helpful. In fact, these infrastructures are burying them in digital data. The confluence of digital data overload paired with the perpetual barrage of Covid-19 information can literally make employees sick.

Information Overload Induces Anxiety

How much is this because people are stuck in their own heads ruminating? And how much is the stress of too many information options?

And what does the combo do?

According to a recent article in Psychology Today, information overload can produce feelings of anxiety, powerlessness, and being overwhelmed, plus mental fatigue and difficulty making decisions – or worse, leads to them making hasty, bad ones. 

Also known as “cognitive overload,” trying to process so much data, the author writes, literally exhausts the brain. And multitasking, a coveted skill in today’s work market, increases the release of the stress hormone cortisol and the hormone adrenaline, which regulates our “fight or flight” response.

Lindsay Sukornyk, CEO of transformational leadership company Alive + Awake, says that data overload can lead to burnout. “It’s like working out one muscle all the time – it quickly become injured,” she says. “People need to be mindful of when they’re reaching that point and take a break, take a walk, connect with other humans by taking a coffee break with a coworker. Get out into nature for a little while.” 

She added that in stressful times such as the current Covid epidemic is a challenge. “Balancing cognitive awareness with other emotional influences can be stressful.”  

Infobesity: Judgement-Making at Risk

Forbes magazine Councils Member (and giant in cloud business intelligence industry) Sébastien Ricard calls this data-glut pandemic “infobesity”; in a recent Forbes contribution he commented, “…consuming too much information can cloud our ability to make good decisions. The results of these decisions can affect the entire workforce, so it’s easy to see why there’s been a rise in companies working to combat this challenge.”

Looking at the business side of the equation, that uncertainty potentially creates new forms of risks. From governance issues (should this information be shared) to customer service (is the information being given even accurate). That same Coveo study found that customer-service mistakes are costly: people will leave the brand permanently. 

Think of your employees as the overburdened Jacob Marley in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol whose chain is described as, “… was long and wound about him like a tail; and it was made (for Scrooge observed it closely) of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel.” Imagine how Marley felt – that is what all that excess data is like for your employees, weighing them down and compromising their physical and mental health, along with that of your business.   

So, as the Covid pandemic recedes and the months of panic, disruption, and uncertainty dissipate, a rare opportunity arises for reflection. It’s the perfect time to re-examine, re-evaluate, and retool the company infrastructure. Find new ways of addressing their employees’ information needs without drowning them in data.

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About Lise Stevens

Lise Millay Stevens is medical communications veteran who has held senior-level positions with the American Medical Association, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and Sovereign Health. She is a long-standing member of the American Medical Writers Association, the New York City Press Club and the Society for Professional Journalists. She resides in Cleveland, Ohio, with her 4 rescue cats.

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