• Dr. Mary Donohue

Fight or Flight and the Health Risk of Digital Work

Updated: May 3

An excerpt from Message Received: 7 Steps to Break Down Communication Barriers at Work


Because I'm a nerd, I know there is an historical link between stress and changes in how we communicate. Let me use as an example the Great Vowel Shift that began in the mid-15th century that marked the transformation from Middle English to Modern English. The impact on education, society, and culture was widespread. As the way words were pronounced changed, communication suffered. (1) This change, just like the move to a digital society with the smartphone starting in 2007, caused a lot of confusion in how we understood each other. Then, as now, people weren’t prepared to respond to the communication shift. The learning curve was long and arduous.




Today we are in the midst of what I call "the Great Digital Crisis", when the message sent is not the message received. My data tells me that we understand only 20 percent of what is communicated to us through digital technology. We make best guesses 80 percent of the time, which is causing us unheard-of levels of stress.


My research shows our “guesses” are wrong 80 percent of the time because our brain can’t identify social cues, like facial expression, gestures, or tone, from digital communication. We are not understanding others or being understood. When we get things wrong 80 percent of the time, our brain begins communicating messages of flight or fight, and we become stressed and exhausted.





The fact that our digital world is so new to our brain means that a team’s ability to collaborate is diminished, so projects get derailed and critical thinking to solve problems is compromised. After thousands of years of understanding and using social cues, our brain is now searching for meaning in digital communication. It hasn’t figured out how to accurately interpret email, text, and PowerPoints. Today’s workplace language is rife with roadblocks that our brain can’t break through and this causes higher levels of adrenaline and cortisol.


When it comes to workplace communication, you may find yourself at your desk and not understand a message from a colleague. In response your heart begins to pump faster, the sugars in your bloodstream increase, and you feel a surge of energy. Next, if you misinterpret what the person is saying, you may get angry.


Dr. Daria Love, my naturopathic doctor, sees the negative physical effects of stress in her patients every day. I asked her why we are experiencing chronic stress or burnout at work and this was her response:

In my opinion, there is much more uncertainty in digital communication rather than face- to-face conversation. This uncertainty is created by a lack of filters in digital communication that we have naturally in face-to-face conversation; social cues like tone of voice. Eventually your brain starts to react to this lack of certainty and filters. When your brain filter fails, fight or flight begins. Fight or flight is an acute response in the moment. If it is constantly happening at work, it starts to affect our perception of events. Fatigue and anxiety begin to weigh you down, affecting your judgments, resulting in less productivity. This creates chronic anxiousness at work; an exhausted but feeling in the body. Chronic anxiousness affects your body by setting in motion a whole series of events, including but not limited to, increased heart-rate, sweating, a sense of panic, or it may affect your bowels.
In my practice, I have never heard anyone say ‘I don’t want to work at my job because my work is too hard’. What I do hear is ‘my boss isn’t clear', 'no one is listening to me', or 'no matter what I do I am not heard’. When we are unclear of others' intentions, our minds build on this uncertainty, reacting with fear and insecurity. Our mind just starts to go off with all kinds of thoughts keeping our bodies in a chronic state of stress, creating potential for burnout.

Dr. Love notes that personal health costs are the real cost of burnout. Personal health costs associated with burnout include increased use of mood-enhancing drugs (for example, Prozac); the onset of Type 2 Diabetes; gastrointestinal issues; heart disease; high cholesterol; and even death for those under the age of forty-five. The workplace cost of burnout is estimated $125 billion to $190 billion in healthcare spending each year. (2)


We have such a volume of information in digital form. The problem is the speed and the digital demands we react to. In a conversation, there is a short time buffer for your brain when you are talking face to face, as you are assessing tone, body language, etc. In digital, the information is overwhelming, and eventually after being in a constant state of panic, subconsciously your mind just begins to not respond or blank out. Think of this as the “I can’t deal with this now” mindset. When this happens, you need to make a quiet space in your day to allow your brain to distill the constant flow of information.




While your brain may be letting you down, it can also be retrained to identify patterns and key cues in digital communication. That’s the point of my book, Message Received: 7 Steps to Break Down Communication Barriers at Work; it will help you understand the seven barriers causing you stress and then give you the patterns, tools, and charts to help you overcome it. Learn more with this fun quiz.


Dr. Mary Donohue is a leading social scientist who has pioneered research in the field of digital mental health with a focus on stress reduction and communication through technology. Recognized as one of the 18 Outstanding Women in Tech and Diversity, MBA’s top 100 Most Influential Women of 2020, Dr. Mary is a best selling author, TEDx presenter, and CEO of Donohue Learning, whose clients include Microsoft, American Airlines, Walmart, and TD Bank.


(1) http://facweb.furman.edu/~mmenzer/gvs/what.htm.

(2) https://www.cnbc.com/2018/08/14/5-ways-workers-can-avoid-employee-burnout.html

https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037


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