Educating staff to deal with stress created by technology

If you read nothing else, read this…

  • Look out for the signs of technology addiction. An employee who constantly checks emails in the middle of the night could be heading for problems.
  • Those suffering ‘technology depression’ could be referred to an employee assistance programme.
  • A prevention strategy includes stating what is expected from the technology user and encouraging ‘blackout’ times.

Communication technology can help to make employees more efficient, but it can also lead to stress and IT addiction, says Sally Hamilton

Technology has revolutionised the way organisations work, but with the 24-hours-a-day, ‘always-on’ workplace, it has helped create a whole new phrasebook for IT-related stress. ‘Email anxiety’, ‘digital depression’ and ‘crackberry addiction’ are just some of the expressions that are causing headaches for managers.

Signs of addiction include someone who cannot wait to get out of a meeting to check their emails or is late for meetings because they have been checking them, says Marcia Chambers, counselling manager at insurance group First Assist. “I also see more stress as people work remotely,” she adds. “Some of it is driven by their perception of what is required of them, not by the manager saying they must reply to emails constantly.”

The general consensus is that employers need to lay down the ground rules. Alan King, president and managing director at employee assistance programme (EAP) provider Workplace Options, says managers must tell staff what they expect when they hand out technology tools. “They need to say ‘we are giving you these phones or laptops so you can stay connected, but it does not come with the expectation you have to check your emails all the time’,” he says. “And they need to make it clear that just because someone is checking their emails at 11pm does not mean they will be first in line for a pay rise.”

Unable to sleep

King suggests employers train managers how to respond to middle-of-the-night emailers, who may be unable to sleep because of financial or relationship worries. Such a discovery can prompt action, such as referral to an EAP.
Managers could recommend staff set certain times of the day aside for replying to emails. Chambers says: “They should not fall into the trap of always replying straight away. Get them to check with the person who sent the email and manage their expectations about when they can reply.”

More serious technology-induced mental health problems can be helped with cognitive behavioural therapy or other medical intervention, possibly through an employer’s private medical insurance, says Katie Tryon, head of clinical vitality at PruHealth.

Employees in a global organisation can be more vulnerable if they have to deal with colleagues in other time zones. King says: “It requires trust and educating staff about time management and how to use tools such as online calendars and even Filofaxes. Most people are not anxious when they know what they are required to do with the technology.”

Employees should be encouraged to be open about feelings of stress, and know it is all right for it to be an issue. But employers should also use a prevention strategy that includes encouraging “blackout times in communications”, says Tryon.

“Employers need to make it acceptable to switch off. But there are issues here because requesting that can raise questions about someone’s commitment to their job.”

Employers also need to be aware that technology can sometimes be a smokescreen. Chambers says: “The issue is often not really the technology, but the workload. Staff need to be taught to negotiate expectations.”

Read also Know the signs of mental health problems and depression in the workplace

Read more articles on health and wellbeing