Around the world and up and down the organizational structure, workplace stress is a significant problem that’s been exacerbated by the unique challenges of the past few years. According to Fortune, middle managers are burning out (and almost half want to quit in the next year), while Gallup reports that employee stress is at an all-time high (a record already broken in 2020).
Although it might seem like most sources of stress originate outside an organization, this year’s State of Business Communication survey, conducted by Grammarly and The Harris Poll, says otherwise. As it turns out, poor communication within an organization plays a starring role in feelings of stress at work and has a negative effect on the productivity and quality of employees’ work.
Between October 14 and October 31, 2022, we surveyed 1,001 knowledge workers and 251 business leaders about communication in the workplace. Knowledge workers are communicating more than ever, particularly in writing. But the content, tone, and quality of their communications aren’t improving year-over-year. We discovered that the frequency of communication, the channels where communication takes place, and the tone that’s used all have a quantifiable impact on your and your coworkers’ stress levels—and some workers experience more negative effects than others.
If you’re one of the many knowledge workers feeling more stress while on the job, here’s a look at how poor communication is making work more challenging than it needs to be:
Poor communication is stressful and hurts relationships
In the survey, business leaders and knowledge workers reported experiencing miscommunication at work at least once a week. It’s a hurdle that prevents workers from achieving their full potential in the workplace, with tangible impacts like decreased productivity, missed deadlines and extended timelines, or increased costs. But on top of these problematic outcomes, communication gone wrong creates a stressful work climate.
In fact, stress was the most-cited outcome of poor communication among workers, with 50% of workers indicating poor communication increases stress (a 7% jump year-over-year). Most workers (69%) can think of concrete examples from the past year when unclear communication left them feeling anxious or stressed, and it has a ripple effect: Workers report that poor communication lowers their confidence (30%), decreases job satisfaction (34%), and makes them consider finding a new job (22%).
Consequences of poor communication impact some groups more than others
While everyone within an organization experiences the consequences of poor communication, our study revealed that some groups feel them more than others. When we looked at the data by different demographics of age, language, and more, troubling trends emerged:
- Knowledge workers who are Gen Z-ers report having significantly lower confidence across several dimensions, including greater difficulty interpreting communications they receive from others, more frequent miscommunication, greater relationship and empathy gaps in the workplace, and ultimately much lower organizational effectiveness when it comes to communication.
- Knowledge workers who speak English as a second language report higher levels of communication uncertainty (negatively impacting their confidence and personal connections) and a higher frequency of miscommunication.
- Knowledge workers who indicate they are neurodivergent are more likely to experience communication uncertainty, cite more frequent miscommunication and tonal gaps, and are more likely to experience negative outcomes of poor communication, especially stress.
- Knowledge workers who indicate they are LGBTQIA+ report receiving less effective communications, leading them to feel less connected to their teams and less clear on how to resolve communication challenges.
Organizations today want to prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion, but few understand the fundamental role communication plays in achieving an environment that reflects these values. Supporting effective communication initiatives emerges as a powerful way to ensure every person is equipped to comfortably and confidently express their ideas, engage with their peers, and build personal connections.
Poor communication won’t get better without intentional effort
Communication challenges don’t get better on their own. They stagnate or worsen and are reinforced when a company culture doesn’t proactively encourage better communication. That’s what makes it increasingly urgent that teams address this source of stress as soon as possible. We suggest three areas you can focus on to start improving communication in your organization.
Leaders and workers alike are eager to improve their skills for asynchronous communication, or communication that is not in real time or is sent without the sender expecting an immediate response. Overall, 58% of knowledge workers wish their company had better tools to help them be more effective in their role, and interest jumps among Millennial (65%) and Gen Z (63%) knowledge workers (compare to Gen X [57%] and baby boomer [40%] knowledge workers).
Strong written communication
For knowledge workers, there’s been a 27% year-over-year increase in time spent on writing communications and a 14% year-over-year increase in time spent on responding to written communications. Knowledge workers who are confident in their written communication skills thrive in this environment and are more likely to rate their level of engagement and well-being higher. Although 73% of knowledge workers professed confidence in their written communication skills, 27% indicated they are not confident in that area and need more support.
Focus on tone
An increase in written communication puts new pressure on knowledge workers to convey tone and confidence without using body language, tone of voice, or facial expressions. In fact, 54% of knowledge workers said that lately they’ve been paying more attention to the tone of the message rather than what is being communicated—and if a request has a positive tone, 62% of knowledge workers said they are likely to respond more quickly, and 48% said they would deliver higher-quality work.
Limit work stress with better communication
Being stressed at work is more than an inconvenience. It’s a sign that you and your colleagues might not be communicating properly and risk undermining your productivity, engagement, and sense of well-being. This is even more true in an increasingly hybrid work environment where we need to be able to express ourselves and connect with colleagues across different time zones, countries, and communication styles.
Fortunately, stress at work is reversible and preventable. When workers are confident in their communication, all of these negative consequences slip away; engagement, productivity, and morale rise, as well as confidence and mental well-being improve.
There’s never been a more important time to check in on communication within your organization and update the tools you’re using to help teams communicate. Every effort an organization makes to empower its people to communicate more effectively and confidently builds a foundation for organizational success—and makes work less stressful for you, too!