“This mighty force, a wild beast brought to the Earth by science, not as a blessing but as a curse, has savagely progressed, casting out of homes thousands of poor families who, in their human ignorance, wonder what to do, how to sustain themselves, and where to go.”
This statement, contrary to appearances, does not come from a programmer, terrified by the vision of job loss in the face of the impressive results of Chat GPT in generating code – although the reaction to the emergence of artificial intelligence in the job market and the related fears were similar. It is a description of the introduction of the steam engine into the market at that time, which we can find in the article “The Consequences of Machinery on the Interests of the Working Classes,” published in 1817 by Robert Owen, a British philanthropist and social reformer. Technology in the workplace, ever since its significant arrival, has aroused fear, stress, and anxiety. Each subsequent technological innovation, on the one hand, equipped us with more effective, more efficient tools, provided new possibilities, and opened up further directions for business development. On the other hand, it has always been associated with a certain psychological cost for employees – technostress. What is this phenomenon, born in the workplace at the intersection of humans and technology, what consequences does it bring, and how can we counteract its negative effects – you will read about it in the article.
What is technostress?
To illustrate this, I will invoke a few scenes from the professional lives of people dealing with technostress, as described by researchers of this subject:
- Tomasz, a high-level manager in the financial industry, receives over a hundred email messages daily. They keep coming even during his vacation and on weekends, and his work phone is always within reach. Tomasz tries not to peek into their content, but the thought of spending hours sifting through his inbox upon returning to work is so frightening that he prefers to make an initial selection on the fly, even at the cost of sacrificing time for himself and his family. He is constantly on edge and distracted.
- Ewa, a long-serving secretary at a higher education institution, struggles immensely with using a new application for student management. She is overwhelmed by the multitude of features, each of which was supposed to simplify her work, as promised by the university authorities. She is exhausted from the constant system malfunctions and the lack of competent support from the IT department, which seems to be learning the system alongside her. Ewa is seriously considering early retirement.
- Krzysztof, a sales manager, responds very quickly to inquiries in the CRM system, earning him frequent recognitions as the “Salesperson of the Month.” However, every time he interrupts his work to respond to a quote request, it takes him about fifteen minutes to refocus on the task he had been working on before. This cycle repeats every few tens of minutes, leaving Krzysztof infuriated and significantly reducing his productivity.
- Kasia, the financial director of a hotel, utilizes the several tens of minutes of commuting to the office for sending private text messages through a messaging app or browsing social media to stay up to date and avoid wasting time on it later at work. She dangerously juggles her phone while driving and has already received two fines for this reason. However, she can’t stop.
These examples illustrate the dual role of technology in the workplace. On one hand, thanks to process management applications, mobile work devices, sales software, and ubiquitous computer networks, we can quickly and easily access information, work from anywhere, and instantly share insights with each other. On the other hand, these same technologies can make us feel compelled to be constantly connected, reacting to work-related information in real-time, leaving us almost addicted to multitasking, and allowing very little time for focused thinking on the present and engaging in creative analysis. This is precisely what technostress is..
It is crucial to emphasize from the outset that it is not the mere presence of technology in the workplace that triggers technostress, but rather the improper adaptation to it or coping with it in a way that hinders functioning and diminishes well-being. If the boundaries between home and work become blurred, if the balance between professional and private life is strained, if the need to be constantly “up-to-date” disrupts our concentration and negatively impacts productivity, if the abundance of processed information causes us to skim the surface, unable to engage in deeper analysis and reflection, to think innovatively and creatively when we feel overwhelmed and burdened by technology, if we worry about handling system operations and feel helpless in the face of its whims and unpredictability, and if, as a consequence, we feel dissatisfied and fatigued with our work – then we experience the adverse effects of technostress.
How does technostress manifest itself, and is it a prevalent phenomenon?
Research conducted by a group of scientists from the University of Toledo revealed that approximately 80% of employees feel that information systems in the workplace have made their work more stressful. Based on observations, the researchers identified five fundamental dimensions of technostress:
- Techno-overload” – refers to situations where the use of information systems compels employees to work more and faster. Ubiquitous mobile devices, applications, and social networks allow the processing of multiple streams of real-time information, leading to an overload of our minds. We are forced to absorb and analyze more information than we can effectively handle and efficiently utilize. This leads to fatigue, anxiety, tension, and makes it challenging to maintain constant focus. We become apathetic, dulled, and insensitive. We require increasingly strong stimuli to feel anything. We also experience tremendous discomfort when these stimuli are absent. This state was aptly and precisely, yet very poetically, described by Zygmunt Bauman in his Two Sketches on Postmodern Morality: “And above all – a flood, an excess, an overgrowth of information, messages, sounds, and images with a semantic load, for which there is no time to decipher, let alone absorb and assimilate. […] In all of this, how do we distinguish important perceptions from trivial ones, lasting from fleeting – how do we unravel the truth from beneath layers of carnival costumes, decide what is a costume and what is a disguise, what is genuine and what is pretense? And even before these questions arise – how do we cut the noise into sounds, extract an image from the flood of colours, carve out sentences from the torrent of words? With the intensification of noise, the threshold of sensitivity increases, and every subsequent message must be louder than the previous one, every image brighter, every shock more acute. And so it continues in an ascending spiral – until the noise deafens, the vision blinds, and the shock paralyzes. The festival of meanings ends in senselessness – when everything wants to signify, it signifies nothing […]. Within saturation lies a void – sensual, semantic, emotional.”
- “Techno-invasion” – describes situations where technology enables employees to be potentially reachable everywhere and at any time. They feel a constant need to stay in touch and be up to date with all information. A regular workday permeates into family life, leisure weekends, and vacations. “No connection” becomes unsettling. Mechanisms of dependence on staying connected emerge, and attempts to break this state result in stress and frustration similar to withdrawal symptoms experienced by an addict during abstinence. There is a fear of missing out on important information (hence the term FOMO), anxiety that we won’t timely read and respond to a message, which might have business or personal significance for us. Such anxiety becomes highly dysfunctional, paralyzing, and introduces immense discomfort into our lives.
- “Techno-complexity” – associated with information systems, compels employees to dedicate a significant amount of time to learning how to use new technologies and invest immense effort into this learning process. Despite the overall increase in society’s technical abilities, new systems, devices, and applications may still require months of learning. They are not always intuitive, and instructions provided by manufacturers can be unclear and unhelpful. In organizations, there is often a lack of time for proper training and implementation. Typically, employees are thrown into the deep end and must learn the technology on the job, while actively working with it. This, in turn, causes stress, sometimes paralyzing and robbing satisfaction from working with the given tool, and additionally significantly reduces work efficiency.
- “Techno-insecurity” – arises in situations where technology users feel threatened by the possibility of losing their jobs to others who better understand new information systems or to the technology itself (which is particularly evident concerning artificial intelligence). With the increasing overall technological awareness of successive generations, one can often encounter newer, younger employees who are better prepared to use new information systems and show greater inclination and enthusiasm towards them. In this regard, experts with many years of experience may feel uncertain in the presence of younger colleagues. This often leads to tension, stress, and manifestations of unhealthy competition.
- “Techno-uncertainty” – pertains to the remarkable dynamics of constantly evolving information systems, which, in a way, do not allow employees the opportunity to gain masterful expertise in a specific application or system. Acquired knowledge quickly becomes outdated, inducing anxiety. Although employees may initially approach learning new applications and technologies with enthusiasm, the constant demands for refreshing and updating knowledge ultimately lead to frustration and stress. Furthermore, seemingly ready-to-use applications usually cannot be employed effortlessly. They require prolonged configuration and adjustments during implementation, which is typically a highly stressful process. Even after implementation, users are uncertain about their functionality, as applications need time to stabilize, and documentation and support from the IT department are often inadequate.
What are the consequences of technostress?
Technostress primarily reduces job satisfaction. Employees who experience it and try to cope with its manifestations generally hold a negative opinion about their work, contemplate changing their jobs more often, and experience burnout. Their innovativeness and creativity diminish because hasty and superficial processing of too much information leaves little time for seeking imaginative and innovative ways to utilize it. Experiencing technostress is also associated with a decline in productivity. Constantly learning new features, adapting to updates, dealing with system flaws, and relying on technical support all consume time that could be allocated to other, more crucial tasks. Employees strongly affected by technostress are often dissatisfied with information systems and biased against technology in general. They feel a deprivation of their own privacy, overwhelmed, and intimidated.
All these consequences are linked to diminished engagement in organizational goals and values. Both job dissatisfaction and decreased productivity, along with reduced innovativeness, impede work and pose a significant cost to the company.
How can organizations and employees reduce the negative effects of technostress?
Below are several effective strategies that can be applied:
- „”Select or perish” – it involves consciously managing the resources of our attention. As succinctly put by Ole Eichhorn in an article on information overload published in “Computerworld,” “Just because someone sent you a message doesn’t mean you have to read it.” The author lists various ways of practicing what he calls “mental discipline,” which means controlling what we listen to, read, and look at. In the face of pervasive information overload, one should seek respite for the eyes and ears. This requires establishing clear guidelines for what information to access and when. Imposing external boundaries on our conduct and consistently adhering to them seems to be the only way to maintain this discipline. Spaces of silence and solitude are extremely crucial, and sometimes disconnecting from technology entirely for a period of time is necessary.
- “No one is a solitary island in the sea of technology” – in terms of technology-related behaviors, organizational culture is of utmost importance. Does it foster the establishment of healthy boundaries? What is the communication policy within the company? Is bombarding employees with phone calls and emails during vacations acceptable, or is it the norm to set an autoresponder outside working hours? How is management overseeing employees’ dysfunctional behaviors? What is promoted, what constitutes the norm, and what is permissible? Is the managerial perspective geared towards maximizing employee exploitation here and now, or has the organization matured to adopt a broader perspective and prioritize employee well-being? Is the possibility of working with a coach or psychologist available? These are extremely important questions, and the answers to them determine the organizational climate, which can either facilitate or prevent the negative effects of technostress.
- “Technological support with a human touch” – it is of utmost importance to provide employees with adequate training regarding the use of a specific technology. However, this training should not be limited to imparting technical knowledge. It is crucial to leave room for expressing doubts and sharing experiences – including the challenging ones. Sharing concerns and expressing them to the group, along with the experience of not being alone in them, significantly reduces the intensity of technostress. The support should not only be provided during the technology implementation period but also there should be a forum for sharing concerns continuously, so that employees do not feel that something is wrong with them when dealing with technology. Throughout the technology’s usage, it is essential for employees to feel cared for and be able to rely on competent support, not only in technical terms, through a responsive and accessible helpdesk but also emotionally. An important aspect here appears to be training IT departments in soft skills, the ability to understand and provide support.
- “Human and technology hand in hand” – mechanisms should be established in the organization to initiate and sustain employees’ engagement in the process of adapting and developing information systems. The goal is for these systems not to be seen as something external and antagonistic to the people working in the organization but to be considered an integral part of the work environment. It is the employees who should provide feedback on desired system features and areas needing improvement. This will undoubtedly increase both the system’s usability and user satisfaction. The company should foster the belief that technology is a collectively refined and universally chosen tool, rather than an externally imposed hostile reality.
- “Analog Creativity” – since technostress negatively affects creativity and innovation, it is crucial to encourage employees to experiment and learn outside of technology. This includes creating an overall climate that fosters supportive relationships among employees, facilitates direct communication, and encourages open discussions. It is essential to promote the presentation of new ideas and risk-taking, organize creative sessions, brainstorming, and ideation workshops without the presence of technology. From time to time, paper and markers should make a comeback.
- “Being offline with yourself and others” – sports, physical well-being, and outdoor activities are of invaluable importance in counteracting the negative effects of technostress. They should serve as a kind of detox from technology. Both institutionally organized initiatives within the workplace and individually taken activities during free time build a buffer against the technology-saturated world of the modern work environment.
Is it really appropriate to frame the issue of technostress in terms of a dilemma – human versus machine? This is not a ring or a battleground. We cannot rid our organizations of technology. We don’t want to do that. We can no longer imagine many processes without the presence of computer systems, applications, and devices. Moreover, with the dynamic development of artificial intelligence that we are currently witnessing, we can expect this technology to be increasingly present in our work environment, occupying spaces previously reserved exclusively for humans. It is important that we do not forget that we ourselves are not machines, that certain distinctly human processes govern us, and for these, we should have a lot of patience, understanding, and time. For a good relationship between humans and machines, it is particularly important for the machine to remain a machine, and for the human to allow themselves to continue being human.