Posted by: Monideepa Tarafdar | September 17, 2009

Technostress and the Rhythm of Organizational Life

There is an interesting and increasingly persistent dichotomy in the way that the organizational use of IT impacts managers. One aspect of this dichotomy is that aided by databases, work flow applications, mobile computing devices, collaborative software, and networks (intranets, extranets, the Internet), managers can work faster, have information that they need at their disposal, have the flexibility to work from anywhere including from home, can connect almost at will and share ideas and insights with project team members and peers, and hence improve the quality of their decisions. These are anticipated and hoped-for benefits from the use of IT, benefits that organizations have experienced in plenty over the last 20 – 30 years.

The other aspect is that aided by these very technologies, managers are forced to work faster because information flows faster, have more information coming at them than they need or can effectively process, are apprehensive about not working outside regular office hours when they are “working from home”, feel compulsive about being connected with friends and colleagues and sharing constant updates and information, and have little time to spend in the kind of sustained and concentrated thinking that leads to sound organizational decisions. This second aspect has rapidly emerged as an important and largely unanticipated problem over the last few years, with the plethora of smart phones, collaboration and social networking applications, the ability to generate and search through vast amounts of information, constant connectivity to some network or the other (cell phone network, company network, VPNs, the Internet), and the ever present email. Studies (e.g. Hemp 2009) talk about “death” by information overload, the disruptive-ness of continual “pinging” and interruptions, the difficulty of maintaining work life balance in the face of being constantly connected, and the treadmill of modern IT where new technologies are acquired and have to be learned regularly, in part because “they are there”.

These “negative” or “non-constructive” effects of IT use are encompassed in the term “Technostress” (Ragu-Nathan et al 2008, Weill and Rosen 1997). Technostress is an outcome of the use of IT and is experienced by managers when they cannot adequately handle the demands of using computers at work. It describes the stress that users experience as a result of multi-tasking, constant connectivity, information overload, frequent system upgrades, continual re-learning about IT and fear of losing one’s job if there is a failure to learn, and technical problems associated with the organizational use of ICT. These conditions are captured in five aspects: Techno-overload, Techno-complexity, Techno-uncertainty, Techno-invasion and Techno-insecurity.

What are the consequences of technostress? One consequence of information overload is that productive time is lost as managers struggle to cope with the glut. As managers get swamped with more information than they can handle, their capacity to make use of this information decreases. Interruptions mean that it is difficult to sustain mental attention and effort, and every time one returns from the interruption, one has to spend time getting back into whatever one was doing before the interruption happened. It takes more time to do the same work and often the quality is not as good. Inability to process information as soon as it arrives (via emails for instance), results in “attention deficit trait” or “continuous partial attention”, mental states where the manager is continually being distracted by incoming information. Indeed, in a research study of more than 600 managers, we found that technostress reduces managers’ job satisfaction and commitment to their organizations (Ragu-Nathan et al 2008). It also reduces their productivity at work (Tarafdar et al 2007).

Why should we worry about technostress? One, because it seeps into us unbeknownst. After all, many of us thrive on the ease of connectivity, flexibility and information availability provided by computers and networks. Yet we find ourselves in situations where we do not have the space to think, cannot disconnect, lurch from one application to another, and are constantly learning something new about the IT we use, without even knowing for sure whether we will find it useful. Insidiously and surreptitiously, we get stressed, our work suffers and we make poor quality decisions. Two, because it is not going to go away, in part because Moore’s Law is not going to go away. Developments in technology will ensure faster networks, thinner and smaller all-purpose computing and communication devices, better visual displays and cheaper memory. Computer suaveness is not going to help either. In fact it is the more IT-adventurous managers who are at the cutting edge of new IT functionality and new forms of collaboration and work patterns, placing them on the front waves of technostress  And three, unless we are cognizant of it, we will not be able to devise ways to offset its consequences at work and at home.

The “rhythm” of organizational life remained largely unchanged over the course of the 20th century. There were distinct demarcations between work and home, and there were for the most part, relatively orderly, although slower ways, of collaboration and information processing. The 21st century has already come to signify tremendous speed in connectivity and information transfer – we can connect instantaneously, can transport any form of information in a matter of seconds, can access work related information from anywhere,  and can work anytime – developments that can be chaotic and that are impacting our living and working patterns in ways we do not yet fully understand. Technostress is thus a manifestation of changes we are experiencing in the hitherto familiar rhythms of organizational life.

References:

Freeman, J.,  A Manifesto For Slow Communication, The Wall Street Journal, August 21, 2009.

Hemp, P., Death by Information Overload. Harvard Business Review, September 2009.

Ragu-Nathan, T.S., Tarafdar, M., Ragu-Nathan, B. and Tu, Q. “The Consequences of Technostress for End Users in Organizations: Conceptual Development and Empirical Validation,” Information Systems Research (19:4), 2008.

Tarafdar, M., Tu, Q., Ragu-Nathan, B. S., and Ragu-Nathan, T. S. “The Impact of Technostress on Role Stress and Productivity,” Journal of Management Information Systems (24:1), 2007, pp. 301-328.

Weil, M., and Rosen, L.  Technostress: Coping with technology @work @home @play, 1997, J. Wiley, New York.

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