Slack has given me PTSD and I can prove it

Slack. What a beautiful enigma of a computer program. Advertised as “faster, better organized, and more secure than email,” Slack officially launched in 2013 and has been gracing workspaces for years to help manage communication and productivity.

It provides an area to keep and share individual work, a place for contributors to upload their projects so it does not have to overload GSuite accounts and hard drives, and is a nifty way for colleagues to pitch ideas. It feels like an intuitive move. With a zero fee introduction price and a relatively low upgrade cost, the platform seems to be the most cost-effective option.

But since the pandemic, the reliance many companies have on this program has led to an overarching overwhelm in the space.

Slack has impacted companies hard — especially during the pandemic

“Even if you’re a regular remote worker, this is not a normal time,” remarks Ravi Gajendran, Ph.D. “The first thing to recognize is that work itself may feel different than before. Leaders need to recognize that employees are going through a lot. It’s not just work as usual but done remotely — it’s work done remotely while dealing with what may feel like an existential crisis.”

While saying that Slack has induced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in many people may seem like an overstatement, the layering of these new methods of communication and pivoting so many other aspects of their lives directly reflects the staggering decline in mental health we’ve seen over the past year. The nightmares and intense anxiety that have resulted directly from many using the program are almost evidence enough.

It’s true. Slack’s infrastructure makes it the perfect place to balance many work functions and to help with organization. However, 24/7 chat access — which is the main communication function of the site — seems to have backfired. When people are given an open window of time and space to communicate with their team, the idea of keeping communication succinct in an email or quick phone call goes right out the window.

The problem with using Slack

Somatic Trauma Coach Sorina Maria puts it best when she says “It becomes quite hard to have boundaries between work/free time & to respect those boundaries.”

More conversations are happening at oddball times, questions are being asked with no context, and more energy is being put into a running thought chain instead of giving it space and professionalism we once could. These open threads are making it so the thought process around an idea or concept is never really over, often making it impossible to follow a workflow or have a feeling of accomplishment around your work.

Not only does Slack make it difficult to establish true boundaries for a healthy and productive work environment, but the overwhelm often isn’t just in your mind. Your body may be experiencing physical responses as well. Expands Sorina Maria: “[Lack of boundaries] overstimulates our nervous system and sends it into overdrive as we simply get messages that everything is important and needs our attention now. So the lack of intentional rest & disconnecting leads to burnout. Burnout is our body simply sending an alarm that it needs rest and replenishing.

A general lack of empathy has been on the rise in the modern workspace as it is, and having a chat function that demands so much of your attention – and that can pull you from other important tasks within the same window repeatedly throughout your day — makes it almost impossible to take the time to actually complete a task. Additionally, you will often find yourself in multiple conversations within multiple threads with the same people, constantly toggling back and forth to find where you left a comment or a detail. Where the additional organization could often be considered as a plus, it is actually diversifying your tasks even further, leaving multiple projects with open ends in various conversation threads, etc.

Aside from the obvious issues with the chat function, an uptick in difficult micromanagement behavior has been very noticeable, especially since so many teams move to a remote work model. For example, people who are into organization may make the space a bit of a disaster for those who thrive on minimal check-ins and to-do lists.

“It was the bible and everything for [our] company existed there,” explains midwest-based Client Relationship Professional Brandis Outlaw. “When it’s in the hands of someone that does not know what they are doing, it’s an utter nightmare.”

As if that is not stressful enough, Slack’s analytics tool lets your boss see the percentage of messages sent within private channels that they do not necessarily have access to, and some companies even make it so that your superior can read all of your messages. (As a reminder: always be sure to check your company policies regarding communication and how much of it they have access to before speaking in a way that would misrepresent your brand.)

Even if you do not have anything in your chat history to be ashamed of, it can be pretty unnerving to have someone breathing down your neck while you work, reading your inner-office communication like that. It really does feel like an invasion of privacy, depending on the level of intensity your superiors take with the app. Plus, emerging evidence suggests that stressful jobs are associated with mental health decline.

A diagnosis of PTSD depends on the opinion of a doctor, but there are 17 common symptoms that are widely identified. We have been warned since the beginning of the pandemic to look out for symptoms of mental health differences, being told that PTSD and other trauma-induced issues could result from this time. That, plus the changes the pandemic has brought with it — one of which is most certainly your use of Slack — actually creates compounded trauma and can be very mentally damaging.

Take it from those who struggle with it

Perhaps you’ve had the foresight to learn how to use Slack or another communication system with extreme caution. That’s healthy. But not everyone has that luxury, especially within corporate settings.

“It perpetuates this idea that everyone has to be available to anyone at all times. And you have to respond immediately to feel useful or helpful,” laments tech industry Experience Designer Jack Napier. “Couple that with the scale of some businesses and the hundreds of channels that are created in addition to the direct messages and you’ve got at least half your workday you’re distracted from.”

Senior IT Support Technician Dawn Starr is overrun by Slack’s capabilities every day. “Distress and intrusive thoughts are my daily life. I say ‘I don’t work from home, I live at my work’” she admits as if to justify what it does to her mental health.

“Being in a support role there is 0 respect and with a tool like Slack to be used for good, our culture of overreach makes it so I can never separate from work. People ping me day and night no matter my status in Slack. People write, ‘I know you’re off work but,’ ‘I know it’s Saturday night but,’ ‘I know you’re on PTO but…’”

Not only is this clearly fostering blurred lines when it comes to working, but it echoes the sentiment that people who are used in this way will never feel properly valued in the workplace.

“[Setting boundaries around communication] allows us to actually let our nervous systems know that we are safe and can finally relax,” explains Sorina Maria. “It signals that we have agency in changing our experience through boundaries.” That response allows us to truly rest our bodies between activities and work, which is paramount to every integral system in your body. “If we do not prioritize rest we are not able to function at our best capacity in the long run so it helps us increase productivity and to prevent physical and mental health deterioration.”

Even people who are just discovering the app are becoming aware of its idiosyncrasies at an alarming rate.

“While my experience with Slack in a work environment has been positive so far, I have enough history working in settings that require constant attention to email and enough interactions through a similar platform in Discord to know that there is a constant pressure required to keep up with the expectations of using the app,” admits new Slack user and real estate marketer Trevor Watkins, “I would not be surprised if I start feeling a burden from Slack in the near future.”

Takeaway

Slack can be an incredible resource for work. But in order to maintain your sanity, I suggest approaching any organizational communication with caution as your position allows. Address the fallbacks of the technology, and be certain to assess and address boundaries around work, for yourself and your team.