About 30 seconds into my carefully prepared Zoom presentation, I noticed a potential donor holding up a hand-written sign: “We can’t hear you. Turn on your mic!” There were about twenty people on the call, including my own CEO. The chat window started filling up with confused comments and a few helpful suggestions. After fiddling with various audio controls and then staring blankly at my audience, I gave up and ended the call – accidentally, it turned out, for everyone. My heart raced when I noticed an alarmingly red Slack notification pop up. It was my CEO. Meanwhile, my phone pinged with its own alert: an email from the donor. Me? I was already stressed out for the day, and it wasn’t even 9 A.M.
If this tech mishap had happened at the office in pre-pandemic times, I probably could have recovered. In a physical meeting, I could have at least called on someone in the room for some help. However, like 40% of the labor force in the United States who have been working from home during the pandemic, these days I have no such luck 1. If my tech goes down, I can only try to Google the solution myself as quickly as possible so I can get back to work. That is, if my Wi-Fi is still working.
For those who work remotely, the day-to-day stress of managing workplace technology is truly inescapable. In a 2020 study by researchers at Stanford University, more than half of those surveyed who are now working from home are doing so in shared rooms or in their bedrooms. (In another study conducted in 2020, 9% of people reported working part or all of their week from bed) 2.
What is technostress?
There’s actually a name for the horrible range of feelings I experienced after crashing and burning during my Zoom call: Technostress – stress induced by information and communications technologies 3.
The blurred boundaries between work life and home life, when combined with a need to be “always on” can contribute to new categories of stress.
While technostress may seem to be a recent phenomenon, ignited by the sudden need to master remote work during the pandemic, in fact the condition was first recognized nearly 40 years ago by American psychologist Craig Brod in 1984 4. Brod defined the phenomenon as “a modern disease of adaptation caused by inability to cope with new computer technologies in a healthy manner.” 5
According to subsequent researchers, technostress is caused by a variety of factors, including “techno-overload,” where technology increases the pace and volume of work, and employees feel they must work faster and longer.Continuing this approach, Amazon uses technology to carefully track the minute-by-minute productivity of its warehouse workers, who can then be penalized for taking too many breaks 6.
Stress is also caused by “techno-invasion”, with technology laying claim to every aspect of our personal space and erasing the boundary between personal and private. Thanks to ubiquitous communications technologies, everyone from the Uber driver to the office worker needs a personal strategy on when to communicate with the workplace or employer and how to protect what used to be called “personal time.”
Technology can make us feel incompetent, powerless, and even threatened with losing our jobs to the technology. The constant desire by tech giants to disrupt and automate whole industries means a constant “creative destruction” of entire livelihoods.There is also the stress of uncertainty, because technology constantly changes and we must always adapt to it 3.
All of this stress caused by technology results in distinct physical symptoms that range from muscle tension and headaches to even cardiovascular disease. “Zoom fatigue” may be just one more way that technostress presents itself.
Anxiety, irritability, an inability to concentrate and increasing apathy are symptomatic. Technostress can affect work performance and impede productivity. In fact, when it comes to mental health, technostress may be part of a double whammy, since these are the same mental health symptoms inflicted by the pandemic 7.
A 2017 study found that at least 41% of remote employees reported more stress compared with just 25% of those who work in the office 8. Interestingly, older employees, perhaps due to their workplace experience, appear to be resilient to technostress compared to their younger co-workers 3.
The blurring boundary between personal and work life as we work from home may not be the only cause of technostress. The gig economy, where independent workers use online platforms and other technologies to drive for Uber and deliver packages for Amazon drivers, is a newer source of technostress. The precarious nature of work, variable income, combined with relying on an app to find jobs means as much as 70% of gig workers live with serious anxiety about work availability 9.
Increasing online surveillance in the workplace is another cause of technostress. In an effort to measure and control employee productivity, some employers are going to extreme lengths to be intrusive, such as installing keylogging software that sends reports back to supervisors 10. These increasingly commonplace, intrusive software spies will destroy any trust between employer and employee, treat the worker as a machine and turn work into a zero-sum game between the powerful and the powerless.
Nevertheless, such surveillance may be here to stay. The students of today have become resigned to putting up with remote proctoring software in their education, and may become the workers of tomorrow who accept this invasive technology as just another way to measure productivity 11.
Is technostress here to stay?
Now that working from home has been normalized, some companies are declaring “the end of the office as we know it 12.” Some workers “will never return to desks full-time” while other organizations anticipate remote working until at least the end of 2021 13. The need to manage and master unfamiliar technologies from one’s own kitchen table (or living room, or unmade bed) means that technostress will be with us for the foreseeable future.
Employees will soon need to master AI-assisted chatbots 14 and “micro apps” 15 that break down large, complex applications into multiple, single-purpose apps. It’s going to make it easier to do everything from schedule Zoom calls to file an expense report with the click of a button.
Easier, that is, perhaps from the point of view of an IT department. Employees will still have to master yet another new technology – and wonder if they themselves are being replaced by technology. Technology research consultancy Gartner predicts that 69% of routine work currently done by managers will be fully automated by 2024 16.
How can employers tackle technostress?
First, employers must understand how their organization uses technology. Many employees experience a steep learning curve when understanding the technological culture of an employer. Often employees are given a cursory introduction to Slack workspaces, shared drives and other online tools as part of onboarding. The task of figuring out how everything works can be time-consuming and stressful.
Second, employers need to truly encourage work-life balance. Leadership needs to recognize that technostress exists, what causes it, and then encourage work-life balance by providing tactics and tools so employees can separate the personal and private. After that, gently hold your people accountable to maintaining this balance. For example, senior managers can explicitly state that employees are not required to reply to work emails after the end of business hours, and they can make vacation time compulsory.
Finally, management can work to reduce the stressful aspects of technology in the workplace, and promote wellbeing. Employees are rarely given a choice about what technologies they must use to get things done. Often there is no guru or trainer available to help explain how things work and generally de-stress a situation. Appointing and providing resources for a technology coach to onboard and guide your employees is one way to help with technostress. A friendly, responsive Tech Support Helpline will also pay dividends.
How I am managing my own technostress
After fumbling with my audio and kicking everyone off my own Zoom meeting, you could say technology was giving me stress. Luckily, all was fine. My CEO and the donor had both sent me the same friendly message: LOL.
I took a deep breath, the panic passed, and all was fine. Five minutes later my Zoom meeting was relaunched. In the contemporary workplace, it helps to remember that, to some degree, we’re all experiencing technostress. A little empathy goes a long way.
Nevin Thompson is a copywriter, digital-marketing specialist, and Japanese-English translator who frequently writes on Japan, technology, and internet culture. He contributes a regular weekly column to online news site Global Voices, and has appeared in Quartz, Fast Company, PRI International, Japan Times and other publications. He lives on Vancouver Island with his family.
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