Tackling Techno Stress

7 min read

Education & Career Trends: January 11, 2023

Curated by the Knowledge Team of  ICS Career GPS

Technology-induced stress is reaching pandemic proportions and has the potential to undermine organisational agility and the adoption of emerging technologies.

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‘Chronic stress is the new normal’ screamed a Forbes headline this month. It stopped me dead in my tracks. Has it really gotten this bad? Like smartphones, stress seems to be a ubiquitous companion as we lurch from crisis to crisis, while sprinting to keep up with the pace of change. Stress thrives whenever there is an imbalance between the demands being made of us and the resources we have available to meet those demands.

When our resources are overwhelmed for weeks or months on end, we experience chronic stress — resulting in depleted energy, negative emotions and lower productivity. Worryingly, chronic stress is the last warning sign before burnout.

How did we get here?

Relationship Status — It’s Complicated.

Each of us has a complicated relationship with stress — it can be intoxicating and toxic all at once. A Hungarian endocrinologist called Hans Selye (1907–1982), dubbed the “Father of Stress”, was the first to provide a scientific explanation for biological stress. He described stress that negatively affects us as Distress, while stress that has a positive impact he called Eustress. In small doses, stress helps us stay alert, fuels motivation, and supports us as we adapt to new experiences. However, when the scales are tipped towards distress, we feel overwhelmed, exhausted and depleted.

Selye broke down his model of stress into three distinct stages — originally called GAS (General Adaptation Syndrome), now colloquially known as The Stress Response. As we move through each stage, our resistance to stress changes, as follows:

However, what happens when these perceived threats don’t dissipate? What is the consequence of facing a relentless bombardment of fear and uncertainty?

Chronic stress is insidious and can sneak up on us when we’re busy keeping all the balls in the air for an extended amount of time: the price we pay is significant. Prolonged cortisol levels can lead to a loss of long-term memory and harm our attention and executive functioning. We become anxious and our cognitive flexibility is stunted. We start to shut out new ideas in a misguided attempt to protect ourselves from any and all potential threats. Put simply, we are in a continuous state of self-defence.

A New Stressor for the Digital Age:

In an ideal world, our everyday use of technology would enhance eustress and mitigate distress. However, mounting evidence shows that technology-induced stress is reaching pandemic proportions and has the potential to undermine organisational agility and the adoption of emerging technologies.

Technostress is the New Uber-Stressor of Our Time:

The term technostress was first introduced by the American psychotherapist Craig Brod in 1984. Even before the digital age, Brod described this new form of stress as “a modern disease of adaptation caused by an inability to cope with the new computer technologies in a healthy manner.” While it is no longer considered a disease, technostress acts as a key multiplier of work-related stress, actively compounding the intensity of existing stressors in life and in the workplace.

Technostress is typically triggered in the following circumstances:

– When there is a high dependency on technology

– When we perceive a gap between what we know and what we need to know, and

– We detect a change in work culture brought about by technology

This type of stress gives way to physiological symptoms like fatigue, irritability, and insomnia, and a host of psychological symptoms such as frustration, additional mental load, scepticism, a reduction in job satisfaction, reduced commitment, and lower productivity.

Unpacking Technostress:

Research into technostress is picking up in recent years as we try to understand the underlying causes of low adoption, failed digital transformations, and falling productivity at work. While new findings continue to emerge, technostress is most frequently analysed across five key domains. Each domain acts as an individual ‘stressor’ contributing to total levels of technostress. These stressors act as hidden threats to digital adoption and have the potential to derail even the most carefully considered tech implementations.

The five key domains are:

1. Techno-overload

2. Techno-invasion

3. Techno-complexity

4. Techno-insecurity

5. Techno-uncertainty

  • Too much to pay attention to, and not enough mental space.
  • We’ve learned that our human capacity to adapt to technological changes is compromised by infobesity and choice overload in recent years.
  • Every day a multitude of applications churns out mammoth quantities of information and our brains feel compelled to ingest, digest and respond to it all.
  • Trying to keep pace with the latest updates and features across all our applications is next to impossible.
  • New features often signal something new for us to learn and adapt to.
  • When we don’t have the time or the mental capacity to engage with every update vying for our attention, we either procrastinate or blindly accept the updates.
  • Doing things differently can also inadvertently add more workload for an unsuspecting human-in-the-loop.
  • While technology processes tasks faster, it may inadvertently create more work when the output passes to a human.
  • The pressure to adapt and maintain productivity at the same time is a common source of anxiety in the digital age of work!
  • Our ‘always on’ culture means that we’re more available, to more people, more of the time.
  • In an effort to get a handle on productivity, an increasing number of employers have implemented spyware.
  • Ominously dubbed ‘bossware’ or ‘tattleware’, employee-monitoring software like Prodoscore use machine learning, AI and NLP across thousands of data points to provide ‘productivity intelligence’ to employers.
  • At the receiving end, persistent surveillance can be unnerving and erode trust.
  • When trust is eroded, anxiety levels are elevated, and poorer performance ensues.
  • Every one of us has encountered a new piece of technology that comes with more features and functions than we could possibly ever need or use.
  • The sheer variety of functions and seemingly endless possibilities can intimidate any user.
  • While training can help — a one-size-fits-all approach to classroom training is rarely an effective way to drive digital adoption.
  • We don’t have the time and mental resources to invest in learning and understanding how to use each feature, so we do our best to intuitively navigate new systems, often feeling helpless and inadequate as we do so.
  • As technology expands its corporate footprint, many employees are naturally anxious to understand how they will be impacted.
  • The longer-term effects are not always obvious or even thought through in advance. Will my current skills become obsolete? What if I can’t keep up with the changes? How will my performance be measured in the Digital Age?
  • Feelings of inadequacy, coupled with uncertainty, can negatively impact our relationship with technology, even leading to technophobia.
  • We accept that technology is advancing at an increasing rate and we’re under pressure to learn and adapt to new tools and features at a faster pace than ever before.
  • The knowledge and skills we have spent years perfecting are becoming outdated at an accelerated pace and the demands of relearning can exhaust our mental capacities.
  • Ultimately, when the effort we need to expend to achieve an outcome appears to outweigh the value derived from using the tool, our self-competence is eroded and frustration starts to build.
  • The end result is disengagement at best or computer rage at worst.

The Stressor-Strain-Outcome framework is a useful tool to demonstrate the connection between different stressors and the results they create in the world. Even a cursory analysis reveals a variety of new psychological, physiological and behavioural problems caused by the digitalisation of work. These stresses have real-world consequences.

Too often, we’re captivated by the latest and greatest technologies without considering the toll that they’re taking on our ability to adapt. It’s time to prioritise human evolution above technological revolution.

Have you checked out yesterday’s blog yet?

2022: The year that changed the way we work

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the article mentioned above are those of the author(s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of ICS Career GPS or its staff.)

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