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How to Prevent Message Fatigue

Modern technology makes it easier to stay connected all the time. We’re constantly getting texts, making phone calls, and checking social media. This can get exhausting after a while, even when the constant contact is personal and not work-related. Whether it’s the same type of contact we’re receiving or not, it’s tiring and only natural for people to either start to avoid contact after a while or to gradually tune it out.

Man using cell phone and laptop

What Is Message Fatigue?

Message fatigue occurs when people are exhausted from receiving messages. You can get message fatigue simply from getting too many messages all at the same time. You can also get it from gradually receiving too many messages about the same subject matter. Either way, the frequency of the messages or the repetition ends up reducing the message’s effectiveness and causing the recipients to tune out. Since the message is technically received but no longer comprehended or remembered, it defeats the purpose of sending the message.

The Boy Who Cried Wolf

This can even be true of emergency messages. If people receive too many and then see no results of the emergency they’re being warned about in the early messages, people may begin to disregard the messages as a false alarm. This could later endanger their lives because they didn’t take action to protect themselves in time. It’ll feel to them like the boy who cried wolf – because the earlier messages didn’t immediately result in a wolf, they assumed that the later ones wouldn’t, either.

Desperately Seeking Confirmation

On the flip side of this, when it comes to emergency messages, people often don’t act upon the first message they receive. Instead, they seek confirmation that the message they received is valid. Perhaps it’s because people don’t want to believe that an emergency situation could actually happen to them. Whatever the reason, people usually don’t act immediately upon receiving an emergency notification and instead look for corroboration that it is, in fact, real, before they take action. People looking for corroboration on a message they receive is connected to message fatigue. If they’ve received too many false alarms or weren’t sure of the actual severity of a message, people might look for conformation before taking action.

Ignored Tornado Warnings in Joplin, Missouri

The Joplin, Missouri tornado is an example of both of these thing. Reports after the disaster reported that residents of the town ignored or reacted very slowly to the emergency tornado warnings, which could have resulted in more people dying because they didn’t take shelter in time. Many residents waited to take cover because they sought corroboration from other sources that the danger was imminent. They checked the TV or looked outside to see what the weather was like in order to assess the risk to themselves. The tornado siren was sounding, but there had already been two in the half-hour before the tornado actually hit. This meant that many people weren’t sure of the actual risk levels and tried to look for confirmation from other sources.

Preventing Message Fatigue

What can we do to prevent message fatigue? Statistically, a lot of tornado sirens end up being false alarms. While it can be argued that it’s better to sound the alarm with no tornado than to not sound it when there is one, it does mean that a lot of people start to think that maybe they’re more likely to be false alarms than not and wait for corroboration from another source, like a text or the TV before acting. Message fatigue doesn’t only happen in a short period of time. It can occur gradually over long periods of time, too.

Different Severity Levels

After the Joplin tornado, residents said that they would like to see different types of sirens to warn of different levels of severity. That way, instead of one standard alarm for everything, there would be a more urgent-sounding alarm to let people know that extreme danger was imminent. Having a way to differentiate the severity of the emergency or type of emergency can go a long way toward preventing message fatigue. If people get the exact same warning for a minor event that they get for a major, life-threatening disaster, they’ll have now way of knowing how much to pay attention to it. And because minor events will occur more often than major ones, people may begin to assume that the warning only means minor events and therefore fail to take action quickly enough when something major does occur.

Different Messages for Different People

Emergencies affect different people differently. In the case of a tornado, it will hit harder in some areas than in others. Some people may only be under a watch, while others nearby may be under a full-blown tornado warning. If people receive an emergency message that they don’t really need, this can contribute to message fatigue over time. Another suggestion following the Joplin tornado was that text messages be sent out to those in the areas in the most danger. This would not only provide the confirmation that people had been looking for, but it also prevents people who aren’t as affected from getting messages that they will learn to ignore.

Confirmation and Corroboration

Even when they’re not experiencing message fatigue, people look for confirmation that the emergency message they got is real. The best way to handle this is to provide the confirmation that people are looking for. For a tornado, having text messages and scrolling warnings on the TV in addition to tornado sirens can provide that corroboration. Within an organization, sending texts and e-mails in addition to a PA announcement and a visual PA announcement on LCD screens and LED signs will give people the backup information that they’re looking for. This is one of the reasons why MessageNet systems can send messages to a variety of different devices and can also connect with systems you already have, including SIP phone systems, e-mail, and text.

Jessica Neuner

About Jessica Neuner

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