Do you get concerned about losing your cellphone or mobile device?
Are you anxious if there is no wireless service?
Do you feel your life is dependent on Internet availability?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then you might be suffering from ‘nomophobia’ – fear of having no mobile phone.
Or, if you felt that your phone vibrated when it didn’t, you might be experiencing ‘phantom vibration syndrome.’
Those are just two examples of the adverse side effects of our interactions with today’s technologies. Unfortunately, these effects, as well as others, are becoming widespread as contemporary information technologies get increasingly embedded into our day-to-day lives.
The psychological and physiological impact of these effects is broadly coming under the umbrella term of “technostress.” High levels of technostress can lead not only to significant chronic health ailments, but also to decline in productivity levels.
Our research shows that the leading sources of technostress are the technologies that increase our availability around the clock. This availability, combined with general work pressure in a weak economy, has resulted in organizations having increased expectations, and employees feeling pressure to acquiesce to those expectations.
And while technologies have advanced tremendously in their processing power, the ability of individuals to process and digest information hasn’t increased in comparison. The result is increased workloads. And when they are used ineffectively, technologies are also a great source of interruptions that hamper our ability to focus on the tasks at hand. As most of us can attest, all too frequently while working on tasks, we are distracted by an email, phone call, text, instant message, tweet or status update. These constant interruptions increase costs of switching to and from work, and effectively add to the workload.
It is not uncommon for individuals to work from home during off-hours or weekends or even on vacations. The accessibility provided by technologies is increasingly straining roles individuals have to play in work and family spheres and blurring the line between the two.
Compounding these issues is the concept of the “tragedy of commons.” Some highly motivated individuals in the workplace are available after-hours and make others feel like slackers. The tragedy of commons implies that eventually, what was an exception is becoming a norm. If you are the only one who doesn’t respond to emails in the evenings or on the weekends, how does that look?
In addition, these technologies have resulted in some confusion and role ambiguity among professionals regarding their roles when their technologies are so intertwined with work. If their devices or software breaks down or needs upgrading, whose responsibility is that? If an individual spends a day resolving technical issues, there is added pressure that real work is not being accomplished.This role ambiguity, coupled with the increased workload and resulting work-home conflict, contributes to the condition we’ve come to call technostress.
So what can be done about this growing problem? If technological power is not properly harnessed, it can be detrimental to our overall health. Harnessing technology must involve proactively controlling the consumption of technology resources.
Different industries are exploring innovative solutions to control technology consumption. Some restaurants, for example, are providing a discount if mobile devices are checked in, with the goal of providing an enhanced dining experience. Similarly, hotels are offering the service of locking up mobile devices during supposed vacation periods. And some have proposed the idea of a technology/Internet Sabbath.
The Benefits — and Challenges — of Disconnecting
It would have a positive impact on not only our productivity at work, but our satisfaction at home as well, if we can begin to find ways to disconnect. The biggest challenge in attempting this will be to manage expectations — to set limitations when one will be not available.
So how can this be accomplished? Some companies are experimenting with already established norms. For example, one company extended “casual Friday” to include being email free to encourage picking up the phone, or meeting face-to-face. Other employers have encouraged employees to set aside a portion of the workday to be free of interruptions and request support from colleagues to preserve this interruption-free time. Another strategy being tried is to leave your cell phone and PDA off one day per week — even if it is a weekend day. Whatever the strategy, it is sage advice to not go it alone — ask a colleague or spouse to help enforce the rules.
Overall, management should take initiative in establishing strong work-home boundaries. This might seem counterproductive for the firm; after all why should management encourage individuals NOT to work during off-hours? However, the potential effects of technostress are real — increasing health care costs to organizations and reducing employee productivity and morale. Further, possibly the greatest enemy of creativity and innovation are the partners of technostress — overload and fatigue.
It is not far-fetched to think that employers would encourage behaviors that would reduce the risk of technostress. Currently, employers (and some health insurance companies) encourage, and even pay, individuals to lead healthier lifestyles. Rising health care costs and obesity issues are forcing employers to think of innovative ideas such as incentive-laden wellness programs. In these programs, individuals are paid to lose weight in the hope that benefits are realized through reduced health care costs and increased energy and productivity.
We can draw a parallel between obesity and technostress. A simplistic explanation for obesity can be provided in terms of food availability (e.g., convenience food) and consumption. In technology terms, we now have convenience technology available (e.g., smartphones), and our present consumption of technology is unbridled. Isn’t it time we put boundaries on our technology consumption habits? Consideration of this issue might lead to corporate guidelines regarding managing expectations about an individual’s availability at work and after work, and establishment of stricter work-home boundaries.
Our world is certainly not going to become less technological in the future. It seems that every year, or often every month, there is yet another gadget, program or time-saving device that is supposed to make our lives easier. And while they often accrue real benefits and time savings, there are often downside risks that negate such benefits.
And so, ironically, we face the challenge of periodically disconnecting from our technological support system in order to recharge, both personally and professionally, to lessen our own technostress.
Varun Grover is the William S. Lee Distinguished Professor in Information Systems at Clemson. He ranks eighth out of 400 prominent management information systems researchers in the 2012 update of the University of Arizona’s h-index ranking, widely accepted as the metric that assesses the productivity and impact of a scientist or scholar.
Ramakrishna Ayyagari completed his Ph.D. from Clemson and is currently a faculty member at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.
Russell Purvis is an associate professor in the Department of Management.
Blurring the line between work and home
Lisa Knott Walker ’03, our cover model, spends her workdays as a home health physical therapist, traveling to patients across the Upstate. She and her husband, Todd, are parents of two children, Avery and Warren, under the age of 3. She loves to run when she can find the time, and the whole family cheers on the Tigers every fall.
Her life is much easier — and more complicated — because of the electronic devices that are an integral part of work and home. The smartphone is always on, for communicating with co-workers (during and after hours) and looking up patient-related questions, as well as for those calls that may come from the daycare center. Her GPS helps her find her way. Her laptop provides information about her patients, unless there are problems with Internet availability and she can’t find what she needs to do her job.
That’s when technostress raises its ugly head. And again when the phone is not working and she’s in some remote area, worried that the car may break down.
The technology definitely blurs the line between work and home. But that has both positive and negative implications.
“Because I document patient charts on my laptop,” she says, “I often find myself sitting on the couch after the kids have gone to bed working on patient charts. I don’t always mind though, because often it gives me a chance to spend more time with my kids during the day knowing I can finish up work after they are in bed.”