Frontline providers fully understand the importance of safety and risk information. However, considering the ease with which managers and colleagues can communicate such information, some of the most important messages can be lost or overlooked in the barrage of emails, texts, pages, alarms, and other alerts clinicians receive every day.
Information overload is of concern, according to Ashley K. Barrett, PhD, an assistant professor of communication studies at Baylor University. Barrett and colleagues studied how healthcare workers experience the problem.1
“Communication overload occurs when people encounter high levels of fatigue and stress due to their experiences with information exchange and the expectations placed upon them for information exchange,” Barrett explains. “New technologies and mobile devices now allow people to be accessible and available for incoming/outgoing messaging anytime and anywhere.”
Further, all these new channels are forcing workers to multitask more than ever. “They must ... satisfy demands for verbal and nonverbal messaging and in-person and electronic messaging,” Barrett says. “Imagine a nurse who is expected to simultaneously work on the floor, providing and receiving messages with co-workers and patients, but is also expected to keep up with his or her emails concerning daily safety updates or risks.”
Barrett and colleagues interviewed 40 workers at two hospitals in the same Midwest network. They found frontline workers often express a different view than managers regarding how they prefer to send or receive safety and risk information. However, workers may not speak up about these preferences unless managers ask.
“Workers are heavily influenced by the thoughts, perceptions, and communications of other co-workers. This is a common finding in my research relating to healthcare organizations and how communication technologies are implemented and used in organizations,” Barrett says. “Managers should try to keep their thumb on the pulse of frontline workers’ perceptions regarding issues with safety and risk messages, and how [these] messages can most effectively be communicated.”
Leaders like to convey safety and risk messages via email because this is an easy way to reach the target audience. These messages can be saved for future reference. Email may seem obsolete to frontline workers, and these messages can be lengthy, tending to overload readers.
“Managers should understand the difference between convenience and effectiveness when it comes to safety and risk messaging. Email should only be one tool in their safety and messaging toolkit, a toolkit that should be very diverse [and] sophisticated,” Barrett emphasizes. “In many cases, the key to effective messaging is message redundancy through multiple [communication channels] — although not complete repetition, as this can turn employees away and even result in more communication overload.”
Nurses give high marks to using huddles for conveying safety and risk information. “Huddles seem to be the key to effective risk and safety messaging. They are short in duration, often no longer than a few minutes, have a clear agenda, and yet offer opportunities for asking questions and interaction,” Barrett reports. Huddles also are generally timely, happening once a day or several times a day.
“They are face-to-face, so they really capture workers’ attention and can cut through the communication noise on the healthcare floor,” Barrett says.
Huddles demand workers pause and listen to messages. When paired with a whiteboard, these sessions can add visual cues to audible messaging, making it more likely staff retain the information.
Nonetheless, Barrett says there are some drawbacks to huddles. Generally, these are the result of mismanagement or leaders not taking full advantage of communications platforms.
“Leaders should be intentional about the purpose and organization of huddles, the information that is to be included, and huddle leader assignments,” Barrett says.
Additionally, leaders should insist huddles be interactive, and they should employ various types of huddles in different levels of the organizational hierarchy.
- Barrett AK, Ford J, Zhu Y. Sending and receiving safety and risk messages in hospitals: An exploration into organizational communication channels and providers’ communication overload. Health Commun 2020;July:1-12.