• Dr. Mary Donohue

Fight or Flight and the Health Risk of Digital Work

Updated: May 3, 2021

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.