Totally wired: Techno-stress and how to beat it

Technology is essential to most people’s working lives. The potential for constant availability via smartphones, laptops and tablets has facilitated the speed of business life and has become a mixed blessing. For some, wireless links offer the luxury of slipping out of the office for a round of golf or across the globe for an extended holiday. Others feel overwhelmed and less creative when pressured by constant ‘connectedness’. The potential for technological overload has created a new type of anxiety that has been referred to as ‘techno-stress’. Techno-stress can arise from many different routes. These include:

  • Technophobia: Fear of change and working with new technology can be a stressor in itself.
  • Technological failure: As work becomes less centralized and more flexible, people have to become their own IT managers. Coping with the after-effects of technology going wrong (hardware or software) can be incredibly stressful (for instance, most of us know how stressful life suddenly becomes when we lose wi-fi access – even if it is for short periods). This can result in behaviour such as ‘tele-rage’.
  • Management surveillance: Management in some organizations install software that tracks employees’ movements both in and out of the office. It is possible to read staff e-mails and monitor time spent at the computer to ensure maximum productivity. The feeling of being constantly monitored can also be a potential stressor.
  • Information overload: Constant ringing telephones, mobile phone texts, and “You have mail” messages on the internet demand instant action. Coupled with junk e-mail and Internet searches that produce thousands of ‘hits’, people can get caught up in the culture of immediacy. As a result, people become overwhelmed with information and will tend to do and say things that do not produce desired results, and that increases their stress levels.
  • Social isolation: Although technology allows flexibility in working practices, it has the potential to make working more socially isolating. This, again, can be stressful.
  • Fear of redundancy: Some people work harder and longer hours because they fear losing their jobs. Coupled with this, there are companies who are making people redundant all as a result of new technologies being installed. This fear can be stress-inducing.

There are now many studies showing the negative impact that technological advance can have on psychological and physical wellbeing. Some psychologists claim that round-the-clock technology upsets the natural rhythms of both body and brain. Muscles in our bodies are there to be used yet we sit for hours and hours at our terminals using only arm and hand muscles. In addition, rising levels of obesity have been levelled at children (so-called ‘screenagers’) and the computer game culture (topics that I have covered in previous blogs)..

Technology enables people to work from anywhere. No one knows if you’re at the beach or in your office. While on vacation people can spend time on their laptops and chat with clients via their mobile phone. For some – if they were unable to keep in touch with work – they wouldn’t go away for so long in the first place. However, not everyone can handle the extreme accessibility, and constant interruptions from work can irritate those that they are with. The work-family line can become blurred in an undesirable way. Lives become even more work-centred than it already is and can become a workday that never ends.

I can certainly think of times when I would take calls around the clock, seven days a week. Such commitment can build successful businesses but can cost heavily at a personal level. It can compromise both social relationships and health. Partners may complain that there isn’t any time that is just theirs. They may feel that their workaholic partner is never entirely there with them. Man may happily trade the income they have to spend more time with their partner. Technology has the potential to create problems in people’s lives and with their health.

The number of people and amount of time spent working during vacations and after office hours keeps growing as technology encroaches into leisure time. Some time ago, psychologist, Professor Larry Rosen of California State University did a four-year study of business attitudes and technology use. The research indicated 75% of managers and executives worked at home, toiling at their computer for an hour or two each day during traditional ‘down time’. They communicated less with family. Furthermore, they became dysfunctional, made life difficult for the family, and became more detached from their friends. Such findings are not isolated. For instance, another survey reported 62% of Hong Kong business managers said that dealing with too much information had caused personal relationships to suffer, and 51% said it adversely affected their health. Results from a comparison of 11 different countries indicated 40% felt that information overload was taking a toll on relationships and 33% reported technology was causing a health decline.

Technology has changed family dynamics, because technology tends to be a solo (rather than group) activity. Instead of sitting around talking together, different members may be spending their time accessing different technologies (e-mails, videogames, etc.). Even in the same room, people can be in a ‘techno-cocoon’. The technology world is so inviting and fascinating, and it has holding power. In addition to everyone staying in their own little techno-world, youngsters, who have grown up surrounded by beeping, colorful gadgets, tend to be more techno-savvy than their parents. Parents must set boundaries and remain in control of the gadgets.

Technology encourages us take advantage of every moment. For instance, during air-travel, laptops, smartphones and tablets, allow people to transform traditional ‘dead time’ into work. Rather than spending a few minutes unwinding or pulling thoughts together, people convert time in a taxi or airport into productive minutes. But such capabilities foster what some might refer to as ‘multi-tasking madness’. No longer content to complete one thing at a time, people conduct business while driving, check stock quotes while waiting in line at the shopping checkout, and read e-mail as they talk on the phone. The brain allows us to keep many balls in the air, but trying to process so much at once becomes taxing for a mind attempting to resolve unfinished business. However, multi-taskers may have difficulty concentrating and soundly sleeping. They may become irritable, because biochemical and physiological systems remain in a state of hyper-arousal. At 2am in the morning, the brain may come up with a solution to something left hanging earlier in the day. Multi-tasking eventually catches up with everyone.

Unless we set clear limits, we are going to be continuously multitasking. Even the less connected feel the stress. Research shows an increase in the number of people who have embraced electronic gadgetry. But those wavering can’t escape the technological revolution. Stress tends to take on a variety of forms. They can be angry things are changing so rapidly. They can be frustrated by how much time it takes to learn new things. They can be irritated, annoyed or feel inferior.

Just because technology makes a task possible, doesn’t mean you have to always take advantage. Companies must introduce initiatives to manage new technology rather than the technology managing the individuals. Stress management strategies include:

  • Involving workers in decisions regarding the introduction and implementation of new technology
  • Creating social networks for people working remotely or hot-desking
  • Letting the new technology liberate the workers by creating more flexible working arrangements for a better balance between work and home
  • Training people in how to get the most out of technology and making it user-friendly

Finally, here are a few hints and tips on how to beat techno-stress:

  • When surfing for information, decide ahead of time how long you will commit to the endeavor. Accept the fact more data exists than you can possibly find and use.
  • Learn the most effective places to look for what you need. If an Internet search top 20 hits fail to yield useful information, refine the original criteria. People can go from one page to another on the Internet, for two to three hours, and not have much to show for it.
  • Limit e-mail retrieval to a few times per day (say when you first get in if you have a lot of international contacts and before you leave work). Furthermore, turn off instant messaging system or the volume on your computer. This is only helpful when you are expecting a message.
  • When you do check your e-mails, reply immediately to e-mails to acknowledge receipt but don’t necessarily give a detailed reply. Give a considered response later.
  • Indulge in a break from e-mail during short business trips. This will make travelling less stressful. In this connected time, it’s very important to disconnect oneself from time to time so as to get some distance and be able to rise above just reacting to immediate things. In those peaceful moments one can think bigger, slower and more inner questions. A break from technology frees up time for friends, family and appreciating the things that make the world unique.
  • If you need to concentrate – to write a proposal, discuss an important issue with a client or think through a solution to a vexing problem – turn off ringers on phones and wireless devices and close the email inbox window.
  • Develop a plan to handle a technology crisis, with tactics aimed at dealing with everything from hard-drive meltdowns and empty ink cartridges to a low-battery beep. Create back-up files and know how you’re going to get back online.
  • One should always ask, ‘Am I using technology or is technology using me?’ and ‘What’s really important in life, and what’s not?’ Our job is to take back control from technology and then enjoy the benefits that it can give us without feeling the stresses.
  • Finally, take a daily break from gadgets to exercise, read or garden. You will get a refreshed point of view and perspective. You have to have a balance in your life. It will make you a more contented person. By consciously restricting time with technology the stress will begin to subside.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D.  (2002).  Occupational health issues concerning Internet use in the workplace. Work and Stress, 16, 283-287.

Griffiths, M.D. (2004).  Tips on…Managing your e-mails. British Medical Journal Careers, 329, 240.

Griffiths, M.D. (2009). Internet abuse and addiction in the workplace. In M. Khosrow-Pour (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Information Science and Technology, Vol. I-V (Second Edition). pp. 2170-2175. Hershey, Pennsylvania: Idea Publishing.

Griffiths, M.D. & Wood, R.T.A. (2004). Youth and technology: The case of gambling, video-game playing and the Internet. In J. Derevensky & R. Gupta (Eds.), Gambling Problems in Youth: Theoretical and Applied Perspectives (pp. 101-120). New York: Kluwer.

Griffiths, M.D. & Dennis, F. (2000). How to beat techno-stress. Independent on Sunday (Reality section), May 7, p.22.

King, D.L., Delfabbro, P.H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Clinical interventions for technology-based problems: Excessive Internet and video game use. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy: An International Quarterly, 26, 43-56.

Sutton, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Emails with unintended consequences: New lessons for policy and practice in work, public office and private life. In P. Hills (Ed.). As Others See Us: Selected Essays In Human Communication. pp. 160-182. Dereham: Peter Francis Publishers.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on March 9, 2014, in Addiction, Compulsion, Cyberpsychology, I.T., Internet addiction, Obsession, Popular Culture, Psychology, Social Networking, Technological addiction, Technology, Work, Workaholism and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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