Technology changes fast.
With each new change, employees are forced to adapt. That process of adapting is painful — physically and psychologically.
That’s why we seem to get a new health problem related to technology every few years.
I want to tell you about the Mother of All technology-related health problems: technostress. But first, a history lesson.
When computers broke our bodies
Business PCs went mainstream in the 1990s. At the beginning of the decade, most people didn’t use PCs in offices. By 2000, pretty much all office work involved PCs.
The use of mice and keyboards and the necessity of sitting and using a PC all day caused a pandemic of repetitive stress injuries, including carpal tunnel syndrome. It seems as if everybody got injured by their PCs at some point.
It was common back then to see people wearing wrist braces. Companies invested in wrist pads, ergonomic mice and keyboards, and special foot rests. Insurance claims for medical treatment for carpal tunnel exploded.
Then the 2000s hit. Mobile devices took off. Business technology use was diversified into laptops, BlackBerry pagers, PDAs and cellphones.
We stopped hearing about carpal tunnel and starting hearing about “texting thumb” and other repetitive stress injuries related to typing on a phone or pager.
Around ten years ago, the technology health problems shifted from the physical to the mental.
Employees started suffering from all kinds of psychological syndromes, from nomophobia (fear of being without a phone) to phantom vibration syndrome (where you think you feel your phone vibrating even though your phone isn’t there) to screen insomnia to smartphone addiction.
In recent years, our smartphones have begun harming health by giving us social media all day and all night, with notifications and alerts telling us something is happening. Millions of people are now suffering from smartphone addiction, which is really social media addiction, and, as I detailed in this space, it’s harming productivity, health and happiness.
And now management science has identified a collection of problems caused by the accumulated effect of all our technology, called “technostress.”
What is technostress, exactly?
Technostress is actually not the latest malady in a series of technology-induced syndromes.
In fact, it’s an umbrella term that encompasses all negative psychological effects that result from changes in technology.
Nomophobia, phantom vibration syndrome, screen insomnia, smartphone addiction, information overload, facebook fatigue, selfitis (the compulsive need to post selfies), social media distraction and the rest are all covered by the umbrella of “technostress.”
While ergonomics covers the physical effects of technology, technostress covers the mental effects.
Over time, technostress is increasingly related to compulsion. People now feel powerful anxiety when they’re not looking at their phones, fearing unseen important emails and work messages and a general sense of FOMO (fear of missing out) with the social networks.
While connected, people compulsively check all the incoming communications streams and feel compelled to respond. Time seems to stop, and the work hours spent on compulsive messaging and social media is usually considered to take far less time than it actually does.
By the end of the workday, employees are exhausted, feeling that they worked hard all day. But much of that fatigue is caused by the constant mental shifting from one communications medium to the next, and the anxiety and stress are caused by nonstop communication.
As I detailed in this column, the time spent on digital social interaction goes up each year, while the time spent productively working goes down.
While CIOs and IT managers focus on boosting productivity with new technologies, the real solution is culture.
The Microsoft survey
A survey of 20,000 European workers conducted by Microsoft and published this week found that technology causes stress, which lowers job satisfaction, organizational commitment and productivity.
Specifically, the survey found, the volume and relentlessness of email, text messages and social media posts distract and distress.
Microsoft makes the very good point that IT leaders readily accept the competitive necessity of digital disruption, as well as the need to do it right. But they also point out that doing it right means not only implementing new ways to work, but also helping employees with the stress of digital disruption.
In the past, employees were able to focus on work while at work and personal lives while not at work. Today, smartphones and communication and social apps keep a constant stream of work and personal messages coming in 24 hours a day, and it’s taking a toll.
Smartphone notifications interrupt, and those red circles with the numbers in them showing waiting messages draw people into those apps to check the messages.
Just a tiny fraction of those surveyed by Microsoft — only 11.4% — said they felt highly productive.
Technology, and the way it’s deployed, is not having the intended effect. It’s causing technostress, and lowering, rather than raising, productivity.
The main solution is a strong digital culture within an enterprise, according to Microsoft.
Surveyed workers employed by companies with a strong digital culture expressed a 22% rate of feeling highly productive, roughly double the average.
Here are examples of good digital culture practices:
- Put limits on email; no sending or replying to email after work hours.
- Measure employee happiness with technology with surveys of your own, and take action on the results.
- Focus on constructing the workday to enable flow, or concentrated deep work.
- Consider banning phones from meetings.
- Train employees on the causes and cures for technostress, including the management of social media usage.
- Encourage staff to take breaks, avoid work after hours and communicate more in person, rather than digitally.
Most importantly, take this seriously. It’s the kind of thing managers, especially in IT, tend to dismiss. (Microsoft’s survey points out that the most technical people are the least likely to suffer from technostress, and may therefore believe it’s not a big problem).
Technostress sounds like a fad disorder, a frothy buzzword without import. In fact, it’s probably the most costly problem in your organization.
Technostress is caused by changes in technology, and the pace of change will keep accelerating. Artificial intelligence, data analytics, robotics, the internet of things, virtual reality, augmented and artificial reality — these changes will bring technostress to a whole new level.
As the changes accelerate, the harms of technostress will rise.
Meanwhile, real cultural change takes time.
The time to address technostress is now.
Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture.