The number of home-based workers is at an all-time high, as workplaces remain closed in-line with the government’s COVID restrictions, but the growing dependence on working online and fully-digital has triggered an alarming rise in employee stress, with a syndrome ‘Technostress’ topping the list of mental health issues. David McCormack, CEO of employee benefits and outsourced payroll provider HIVE360 investigates.
Workers are under unprecedented pressure to maintain productivity and efficiency while working from home in a fully digital way and pretty much totally online. Growing numbers are showing signs of the syndrome ‘technostress’, which leads to anxiety, burnout and depression. The impact of introducing new work-based IT and technologies is triggering a number of worrying mental and emotional issues brought on by the stress and negative psychological effects of online working.
First defined in 1984, technostress happens when people subjected to information overload and continuous contact with digital devices, develop a state of stress, or exhibit an abnormal response that is characterised by symptoms including cardiocirculatory, mental health, and neurological issues.
The consequences of technostress are serious. Workers, their employers and colleagues must learn to recognise technostress as a serious health problem. They must also be aware of the contributing factors and the very negative effects of these, in order to protect the health and wellbeing of their team, by in particular assisting their tech knowledge to help them avoid the inevitable negative effect on their wellbeing.
What are the major causes of technostress?
There are five main triggers of technostress, all of which are heightened in the COVID way of working today:
- Invasion: when work is brought into the home, this creates a feeling of being invaded. For the record numbers of employees regularly, often constantly, working at home, it is hard to shut off from work, with the physical lines between home and work being blurred.
- Overload: even when working ‘normal’ work hours, it can be hard to focus, and employees feel under enormous pressure to maintain productivity, efficiency and results even though they are working often in isolation and usually always using tech. This leads to them feeling overloaded, emotions that are exacerbated by the constant tech-based interruptions such as emails and online meetings.
- Complexity: technology has in many ways been the UK’s workforce’s salvation at this time, but for those employees inexperienced with using technology, new software and equipment feels daunting, highly complex and intimidating, which fuels stress and causes frustration.
- Insecurity: some businesses are failing to give their homeworkers extra time or training to get to grips with new technology and software, instead expecting their employees to get to grips with it themselves. This can be very challenging and overwhelming, and lead to feelings of job insecurity, low engagement, failure and performance anxiety.
- Uncertainty: there is so much uncertainty about the future these days, and job security is a major part of doubt of what tomorrow may bring . With technology constantly advancing and updating, workers are feeling uncertain over what work will look like tomorrow, creating a sense of instability and anxiety.
What are the signs of technostress?
Humans only have one stress response, which is why symptoms of technostress are so like regular stress. Levels of our stress hormone Cortisol increase significantly in response to stress triggers, which can lead to strain and burnout.
Technostress manifests itself in three main ways, and employers should look out for one or a combination of these in their colleagues:
- Physical symptoms: headaches, sore neck, back, and shoulder muscles, an inability to relax, and hypertension.
- Mental symptoms: increased errors and mistakes in work, lower productivity levels, a lack of concentration, low morale, cynicism of technology, and depression and mental exhaustion.
- Emotional symptoms: panic/anxiety attacks, feelings of isolation, irritability, less time for sustained thinking, work:life imbalance, low job satisfaction, increased mental and time pressure.
What can employers do to prevent and overcome technostress?
Employers can take proactive, positive action to counter the onset of technostress. Underpinning this has to be a strong digital culture for workers, that includes a clear strategy on technology use within the business. This can be achieved by deploying six key strategies:
- Assess the risk: get a clear picture of the current situation. Many digital communication platforms offer a tool that without invading employees’ privacy, allow investigation of key insights on productivity trends, tools used, and ‘screen time’. This provides an idea of extra time spent on new tech and tools, especially outside of usual working hours, and whether employees may be struggling.
- Raise awareness: one of the biggest ways to combat any kind of mental health issue in the workplace is to raise awareness of it, so ensure all employees know the signs, causes and dangers of technostress.
- Work:life balance: encourage employees to switch off from work at home, for instance, introduce a policy of not sending or replying to work emails outside of normal work hours. By allowing employees to disconnect from work, they’ll be happier, healthier and more productive.
- Training: ensure the availability and provision of sufficient, accessible resources and training for technology and regularly communicate with employees about this.
- Processes and procedures: review, adjust and re-design workdays and the policies and procedures governing these, to avoid unnecessary workloads. This is vital in the current predominantly home-based working model, as it helps consider external stressors and factors that may not have impacted procedures and policies prior to COVID-19.
- Focus on necessary communication: current levels of communication with colleagues, teams, clients and suppliers are unprecedented, but sometimes there is an expectation that people will respond all the time. This carries a real risk of overloading team members, so to help reduce the associated stress, commit to communicating with employees about only the most essential matters, and strive to minimise unnecessary communication.