Technostress: How Can We Curb the Negative Influence of Technology at Work?

by Joep Buitelaar 09 May. 2019

Technology: it can boost the productivity and creativity of your employees, significantly lower risks and expenses and even reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Many people have, through technology, the opportunity to work from any location at any time, creating an increasingly more flexible and productive workforce. This ‘hyperconnectivity’ of today’s society enables teleworking and its numerous positive impacts on employees.[1] However, there is also a darker side to this connected way of life and work. New words such as “technostress” or “workplace telepressure” have emerged in Dutch literature on employee health, describing the negative impact on attitude, thoughts, behavior or physical physiology that can be caused by technology. Historically, employees have the right to regular breaks from work and maximum working hours are strictly defined. Yet how does this translate to modern society, in which the boundaries of work and rest are increasingly blurred through constant accessibility

Technostress and Telepressure

The Netherlands has seen a worrying increase in burnout and stress-related illnesses.[2] In particular, employees between the age of 25 and 35 are prone to stress related illnesses. Stress has many sources of which the use of mobile devices is recognized as an increasingly important source.

Ongoing research by The Dutch Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) points out that being able to work at any time or place; not being able to set boundaries and the need to be (seen to be) available at all times are important sources of so-called technostress.[3] Another interesting finding in the research study is that employees themselves are largely unaware of the existence of technostress.

In a University of Amsterdam publication, the need felt by employees to reply instantly to work-related messages is described as workplace telepressure.[4] This pressure originates from the fear of consequences when messages stay unanswered and the fear of missing out (FOMO). Whether these messages are received at work or elsewhere does not matter.

These forms of stress, alone or together with other factors can have a negative impact on the health and well-being of the employee. In the worst case, stress can lead to burnout, with long lasting and often permanent consequences.

Lock-Out, Tag-Out, Phone-Out?

There is no question as to whether technology can have a negative impact on the health and wellbeing of employees. The negative effects are already on the rise, with a worrying increase in burnouts and stress-related illnesses in the Netherlands.[5] So how can we keep using our technology and all the advantages it brings but without the negative side effects? Simply cutting out any technology after work is not a viable option; an increasing number of people use their work devices for private purposes.[6] This makes exposure to work related messages outside of work unavoidable and besides, who is willing or able to shut off their phone or tablet for a day, let alone a whole weekend? So how can you make sure that an employee will not suffer any negative effects from work related technology or communication? In the Netherlands a member of parliament has submitted a proposal for an Act addressing and answering this question.[7]

Transparency

The proposed Act recognizes that the current legal framework in the Netherlands is insufficient in managing and addressing the ongoing technological progress and employee health. To tackle this problem, it proposes to encode a ‘right to inaccessibility’ in the Risk Analysis and Evaluation (workplace risk assessment) of every employer. This would require every employer to make an estimation of the risks of accessibility outside of working hours and the appropriate preventive measures to be taken. Besides this, the subject of reachability outside of working hours needs to become a part of the overall conversation between employers and their employees. The transparency this will create will be an important step forward in reducing stress from work-related communication received outside working hours. One possible preventative measure could be switching off the work e-mail server outside working hours, an approach which is currently applied by Volkswagen. Alternatively, this could be as simple as reaching an agreement with employees as to when they are expected to be (un)reachable. 

Conclusion

It is concerning to see that the workforce aged between 25 and 35 years old is especially susceptible to the negative effects of technology on their health and well-being. With most of their career ahead of them, it is vital to recognize the long-term impact of stress caused by technology can have on individuals and the society as a whole—especially now that it is evident that technology is only going to be more integrated in our everyday life and work. The first step of dealing with the issue is awareness of the problem. This is where we are at now and it is important as the lack of awareness of technostress is itself an important factor in its existence. Legislation, such as the initiative act in the Netherlands, might be the next step forward towards a responsible work-life balance and the use of technology. Even though in its early stages, the initiative act has already raised awareness through a public consultation earlier this year. The next phase will be for it to be submitted to the house of representatives; where it will be discussed, reviewed, amended and eventually: adopted or rejected. If it is up to the initiative takers, the initiative act would enter into force on January 1, 2021.


[1]https://mobilit.belgium.be/nl/nieuws/nieuwsberichten/2019/met_twee_keer_zo_veel_telewerkers_kan_de_trajecttijd_tijdens_de_spits

[2] TNO (2018). Arbobalans 2018. Geraadpleegd van: https://www.tno.nl/nl/over-tno/nieuws/2019/1/arbobalans2018-psychosociale-arbeidsbelasting-en-burn-out-klachten-blijven-toenemen/

[3] Stress by technology: employees see is only the tip of the iceberg: abstract; available at: https://repository.tudelft.nl/view/tno/uuid:cc0c41e5-75d0-4444-90bd-af3d533d40e5

[4] Van Laethem, M., van Vianen, A.E.M. & Derks, D. (2018, 24 oktober)., Snel reageren op werkappje? Ook thuis houdt het je bezig. Geraadpleegd van: http://www.uva.nl/content/nieuws/nieuwsberichten/2018/10/snelreageren-op-werkappje-ook-thuis-houdt-het-je-bezig.html

[5] TNO (2018). Arbobalans 2018. Geraadpleegd van: https://www.tno.nl/nl/over-tno/nieuws/2019/1/arbobalans2018-psychosociale-arbeidsbelasting-en-burn-out-klachten-blijven-toenemen/

[6] Memorie van toelichting op de Initiatiefwet Gijs van Dijk tot het recht op onbereikbaarheid, p.3 available at:
https://www.internetconsultatie.nl/rechtoponbereikbaarheid

[7] Initiatiefwet Gijs van Dijk tot het recht op onbereikbaarheid, available at:
https://www.internetconsultatie.nl/rechtoponbereikbaarheid