Innovations that can make work functions faster, cheaper, or easier are taking a toll on the mental and physical functioning of humans.

Navigation, calculation, information, organisation, relaxation. These diverse human needs are increasingly being fulfilled by just one device. We reach for our smartphones multiple times a day and virtually tick off an ever-growing number of demands. According to global data and intelligence company Statista, apps are becoming a part of our hourly, not just daily, working lives. Their research reveals that the top five most common app categories include business, education and utilities, with productivity and finances making it into the top ten.

The average person uses nine apps daily and about 30 apps over a month. These apps need downloading, updating, syncing, personalising, tracking, and managing, before their intended use has even been solicited and appreciated. This pressure that is distinct to our electronically governed lives has become so commonplace that it’s referred to as technostress.

The term was coined by clinical psychologist Craig Brod. In his book Technostress: The Human Cost of the Computer Revolution, Brod describes it as the inability to cope or deal with new information and communications technologies in a healthy manner. “This disease may manifest itself in the struggle to accept computer technology, and by overidentification with computer technology.”

Technostress is on the rise due to the ubiquity of electronics, and the rapid pace and adoption of technological advancements such as email, AI, virtual meetings, and cloud computing.

Minds are not machines

Just as the devices around us are able to do more, people are also falling prey to the idea of maximising capacity. One of the ways to do this is multitasking, which is performing several independent but concurrent tasks. Computers may be able to do so, but humans often compromise the intended goal of efficiency by multitasking.

Contrary to popular belief, multitasking in general leads to decreased productivity and increased errors. According to researchers, this is because the human brain is not as effective at handling multiple tasks simultaneously as it is at focusing on one task at a time.

Similarly, the human brain cannot mirror the processing speed of technology. In the modern workplace, information often flows fast, and this makes people feel compelled to also work faster. However this pressure can compromise quality of work, as it reduces the time available for deep, creative thinking. Fast-paced work environments can lead to superficial analysis and burnout.

The concept of why faster isn't always better in the context of work and decision-making can be related to the ideas of "System 1" and "System 2" thinking from Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking, Fast and Slow. System 1 is our fast, automatic, and intuitive way of thinking. It's responsible for quick judgments and decisions, often based on limited information. This system is great for immediate, routine tasks or when quick decisions are necessary, but it's not always accurate because it relies on mental shortcuts and can be influenced by biases. System 2, on the other hand, is our slow, deliberate, and analytical way of thinking. It requires effort and is used for complex problem-solving and critical thinking tasks. This system is more reliable for making thoughtful decisions and solving complicated problems because it considers more information and evaluates options more thoroughly.

When we say "faster isn't always better," it often means that relying too much on System 1 can lead to hasty, less thought-out decisions, especially in situations that require careful analysis and consideration. In such cases, engaging System 2 is beneficial as it allows for more in-depth processing, reducing the likelihood of errors and improving the quality of the outcomes. Therefore, balancing the two systems, knowing when to react quickly and when to take time to think things through, is crucial for effective decision-making and problem-solving.

Human needs are valid needs

People need rest, recovery and downtime more regularly than devices. They also need frequent downtime away from devices, but this isn’t always feasible. Organisations can, however, create environments that are physically and technologically safe to counter the technostress faced at work.

A safe digital environment should include ergonomic furniture, adequate lighting and supportive tools that can reduce eye strain and repetitive strain injuries. Companies can ensure effective technology management by providing ongoing training and support, encouraging a culture of continuous learning, and allowing time for employees to familiarise themselves with new technologies before expecting proficiency.

Recent studies of digitalisation have identified four factors that influence how employees adapt to the adoption of new technologies. These are, firstly, technology acceptance and adoption, which suggests the need for employers to invest time in explaining to employees the features of new technology and how it fits in the broader organisational strategy,

Secondly, perceptions and attitudes toward technological change emphasises the need for organisations to target employee perceptions and attitudes towards technological change as part of their new technology change management strategy.

Then, skills and training that present opportunities for both formal and informal, self-directed, and continuous workplace learning should be part of an organisation's new technology change management strategy.

Lastly, workplace adaptability is an important skill that can be developed as a general psychological resource. Resilience can assist employees with positive adaptation to the technological changes of today, and of tomorrow.

Modern literacy

Make sure you’re able to reduce or eliminate technostress by changing some of the most common harmful habits, beliefs and mindsets

The harmful habit: Multiple devices and apps often bring downsides along with their benefits. Working on smartphones, a tablet and a computer, each with many solutions, will create a lot of distracting noise and notifications. Managing all of this can use up a lot of time as well as induce anxiety.

Rather consider streamlining your digital tools. Limit yourself to the essential apps and tools that truly enhance productivity. Uninstall or mute unnecessary applications to reduce digital clutter, and then set designated times for checking in on notifications.

The harmful belief: Staying permanently connected and accessible to clients, colleagues and service providers may seem like a productivity booster. But the temptation and ability to always work is exactly why it can be a stressor. Unbridled dedication can lead to burnout, and ultimately failure.

Rather set clear boundaries for your specific work hours and then communicate them to colleagues and clients. Prioritise self-care and downtime by ensuring regular breaks for meals, relaxation, and hobbies are part of your daily routine. Remember, rest is a crucial component of productivity.

The harmful mindset: Fear of missing out on new tools, resources, and technologies can induce stress. Individuals who want to succeed may feel that their biggest goals will be unlocked by the newest or latest offering. Not wanting to potentially lose out or be left behind can cause an ongoing state of panic and fear.

Rather focus on mastering existing tools and staying up to date with their developments. Evaluate new systems or software critically in terms of their actual utility for your work or personal life before adopting them. It might also be helpful to allocate specific times for learning about new technologies, to ensure it's a structured and non-stressful process.

Dr. Frank Magwegwe is a permanent faculty member at GIBS. He lectures on corporate finance, employee wellness, personal mastery, resilience, and quantitative principles and widely consults in these areas. He is also a trusted financial wellness expert who is a regular contributor to newspapers and magazines and a frequent guest on radio and TV shows. Tune in to his show on Wednesday evenings from 20h15 – 21h00 on Radio 702.


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