Introduction

2020 has been a strange year for all of us.  None more than the way we have done business. Almost overnight for those of us working in the technology sector found ourselves working at home.  One of the critical enablers that made this possible is the use of online collaboration tools.  Tools such as Zoom, Skype, Slack, Microsoft Teams and Yammer are have allowed us to work at home and connect no matter where we are physically sitting.  Yet, while these tools have been essential in keeping business moving during these times, do social collaboration tools carry a dark side that could be silently affecting our mental health?

What's not to like about The 'Like' System

The Like system was first brought to the masses by Facebook in 2009, but at the beginning, Mark Zuckerburg wasn't a fan, and it took several years to get approval to roll out.  We have all been there where we open up the apps and check to see the notification icons of how many new likes we have. Without knowing most of us can become hooked, and there is an excellent reason for this.  When we receive a notification, we get a shot of Dopamine - a chemical messenger our body creates when we receive a reward. The more we get, the more we crave.

Dopamine can be addictive because it reinforces our bodies to repeat the behaviour it associates with pleasure.  The same reaction occurs when we drink or smoke.  Also, studies have shown that social media 'Like' systems can negatively impact teenage brains. While the report only focussed on teenagers due to a perceived increased sensitivity in their brain, it isn't too far a leap to ensure that similar negative impacts could affect adults. The problem is that when we post or share content and do not receive a 'Like', or a share we are not receiving the positive reinforcement from our peers and therefore can be left feeling disappointed or rejected.

So what has all this got to with business collaboration tools?

Almost all online collaboration tools have a like system or something that enables consumers of the content to share their reaction.  It could be approval, recognition or sharing their disapproval. These same systems tap into the Dopamine reward and reinforce system in our body.  As a result, we are pretty happy when someone likes or comments on an idea we might have and share it in the group.  However, the opposite happens and we receive criticism or no reaction then this can be damaging to the employee:

  • The employee may feel rejected by their peers;
  • They may be inclined to offer future suggestions;
  • If others are receiving praise, it may make the employee feel devalued.

So, a simple 'Like' system that appears fun can cause long-lasting damage.

Collaboration tools are here to stay, and not just during a moment of crisis. I believe the solution is increased awareness, greater education and fundamentally, we need to look out for each other.

Other cause for concern

While I have focussed on one particular issue with these tools, there are additional reasons that these tools can affect mental health.  Other examples might be preferring online tools to communicate where face to face conversation may be more suited.  Reducing human interaction in the workplace means we are less likely to build meaningful relationships.  Humans are social creatures, and therefore lack of communication can play a part in our mental health.

In addition to the social drain from collaboration tools, another more common problem exists - distraction.  The never-ending popping up of messages from different people and groups can add to our distraction.  Distraction costs us time and efficiency on how we work, and constant context switching can lead to a feeling of underachievement.  There is no evidence to suggest disturbance can lead to mental illness, but if we are not effective in our execution, coupled with a feeling of underachievement can lead to stress.

Conclusion

There have been many studies on the effect of social media and its connections with anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions.  However, almost running parallel over the last five years, I have witnessed an increase in online collaboration tools in the business.  It started gently with Skype. This simple tool allowed us to quickly 'ping' a simple message to a colleague.  Recently there has been a trend in business to bring full-blown social media applications to their staff, and the COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the process.

Additionally, with the next generation of workers who have grown up through the social media era, they have grown accustomed to how the 'Like' system works and therefore may feel additional pressures on securing more likes.

The advantages are clear, and we can easily communicate with teams across the world.  Be careful with the negative sides of using these social tools in the workspace.  If we get positive reinforcement and approval through the 'Like' system, we receive that shot of Dopamine that leaves us on a high.  If we don't, then that can damage our mental wellbeing, and we need to be aware of ourselves, our teams and our employees.