John Mueller is an experimental psychologist who has done research on emotion and social-personality factors in cognition for over 30 years. He has also worked extensively over that time on computer applications in psychology and educational technology. He teaches courses and consults in these areas, focusing of late on technology and stress at home and in the workplace plus issues related to academic freedom. He can be contacted at 403-220-5664, or by e-mail at email@example.com, and maintains a web page at http://JohnMueller.org
The VCR is blinking 12:00. The kids are doing their homework by e-mail. Your pager beeps as the cellphone rings in the middle of the mall. You are lost without the schedule in your personal data assistant. The fax machine is out of paper, the photocopier is jammed, and you just spilled coffee over everything when you tripped over the scanner's cables. You leave for the airport on a business trip and realize your computer luggage is larger than your regular luggage. Thank heavens your job is made easier by all this!
Modern technology has proliferated in the workplace and our homes. Some seem to thrive on the buzz, at least for awhile, whereas others either flounder outright or "cope" but go home feeling frazzled rather than proud of increased productivity. Some of us survive for awhile, but more and more of us are wondering where it will all end.
Why is it important to know where technostress (Weil & Rosen, 1997) comes from? Because you can control some of the factors contributing to it, but you can't do much about other aspects, and you need to know where the line can be drawn. This is just a specific version of the classic stress-management Serenity Prayer: "God, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the Courage to change the things I can; and the Wisdom to know the difference." Attributions are important, don't blame yourself and don't let others blame you.
Among the contributing factors that you can't control, and about which you should not accept responsibility, we can identify things such as the following.
1- TECHNOLOGY HAS BEEN SOLD AS THE HOLY GRAIL FOR INCREASED PRODUCTIVITY and profit, and when these don't happen the easy way out is to claim that it is the worker's fault. That technology investments do not reliably produce benefits is well established, as is the interpretation that the problem lies in management and computer industry strategies rather than the worker's utilization (e.g., Landauer, 1995). You need to know that the productivity paradox or shortfall is a general problem, and not just you at your workstation, and more importantly maybe your boss needs to know this as well. (May work in small businesses?)
2- TECHNOLOGY IS DESIGNED BY AND FOR EARLY ADOPTERS, who don't mind the hassles and short-comings. In fact, they even make a living from fixing the problems and training (blaming) you. This means the rest of us spend time learning to use the technology per se rather than using it as a tool (e.g., Norman, 1998). The computer industry still sees the problem as marketing a cutting-edge product to mainstream users rather than identifying their needs and supplying solutions (e.g., Moore, 1995). There never has been a real plan for the computer industry (Cringely, 1996).
Let's see where you fit --
3- TECHNOLOGY IN AN ORGANIZATIONAL SETTING IS PURCHASED BY A NON-WORKER, OR AN EARLY ADOPTER, FOR MASS IMPLEMENTATION, AND BOUGHT FROM THE LOW BIDDER. The criteria are seldom those you would use to buy things for yourself as an individual consumer, but at work you have no choice other than to deal with a product chosen for a variety of reasons other than its utility for your job.
4- TECHNOLOGY IS SELDOM DESIGNED TO SOLVE ACTUAL WORKPLACE PROBLEMS, and furthermore the industry continues to mostly ignore human-computer interface and ergonomics issues. What the hardware can do is what's important to the designer and programmer, and surely you can find a way to apply it, and ways to work-around the limitations. Yes, it's the tail wagging the dog here. You are not a Luddite just because you expect the gadget to actually satisfy a need.
5- TECHNOLOGY DOESN'T DO WHAT IT IS SUPPOSED TO DO, and you can't test-drive with the option to return it. Read your software license, and then ask whether you would buy anything else that says it can't be returned if it doesn't do what it claims to do. And the fact that the boss is paying for it still doesn't mean this is a rational business arrangement, it's still a waste of money, time, and energy.
6- STANDARDIZATION MAKES THE TECHNOLOGY MANAGER'S JOB EASIER, but probably not yours. Different jobs may well need different tools, but that precludes management buying 10,000 copies of the same thing to get a bulk discount. One size must fit all. A variant of this is that what's good for a Fortune 500 office is also what you need at home. Hardly.
7- THE TECHNOLOGY BUSINESS HAS CLEVERLY SOLD US ON THE IDEA THAT HUMANS CAN ADAPT TO SUIT THE COMPUTER'S LIMITATIONS, as opposed to designing the tool to do the job in the first place. We've been co-opted to redesign the workplace to fit the tools. It's a good deal for the seller, but not for the buyer or worker.
Poor tools are visible, good tools are noticed only when they break (Norman, 1998). Mainstream users want transparent tools,
This list could go on, but this should suffice to make the point. Unfortunately, the computer industry seems content to ignore feedback about these issues, and so computer users likely will continue to serve as scapegoats. It helps maintain the idea of a "technology priesthood." You can't control these issues, but don't accept the blame either: if the device doesn't increase your productivity, be sure to remember that that is a shortcoming of the device and not you. It would be nice to solve these problems in a more sensible way, but at least let go of the anxiety inherent in the industry's blame game.
What aspects can you address, and how? There are, of course, the usual palliative stress management techniques that can be applied, such as eating and sleeping right, exercise, and so forth, but in the case of computer technology there are some more specific things to keep in mind. Many of these involve recognizing the extent to which technology is blurring the distinction between work and home for too many of us, and then taking steps to regain control.
Note that some of these things are completely under your control because they involve technology at home. You may have little choice about how things are done at work, because someone else makes the decisions and does the buying. However, don't behave in such a helpless manner when you are writing the cheque. The computer industry has really never understood the home market, but home does not have to be designed to match the workplace, especially when the workplace has been designed around the shortcomings of the tools instead of actual workplace solutions.
1- STOP TRYING TO MULTI-TASK AND WORK 24/7, humans are not good at it. Your computer can go all day every day, but you can't so don't even try. For example, don't eat lunch at your desk, and don't skip a break to answer e-mail. Don't skip exercise, lunch, vacations, anniversaries, birthdays. Resting is not loafing, it is recharging.
2- ESTABLISH SOME BOUNDARIES BETWEEN WORK AND HOME. Technology may allow you to work at home, but this in effect makes it more difficult to get away from work. Maybe it's time to take down the "Think" or "Think Different" slogan on your wall, and gaze at a poster of Greta Garbo: "I want to be alone"? In technical jargon today it is common to talk about putting a firewall between the outside world and the business computer network, but it may be just as appropriate to put a psychological firewall between work and home, a virtual moat around your castle.
3- DON'T BE "ON CALL" ALL THE TIME. Leave the cell phone at home when you go out to a movie (please, we would all appreciate it!). Check your e-mail and voice-mail intermittently rather than constantly, after the manner of the daily snail mail. If you take a break to reenergize, you should actually be more efficient when you resume work, and the messages will still be there.
4- DON'T CONTACT SOMEONE ELSE IMMEDIATELY JUST BECAUSE YOU CAN, maybe they would appreciate a break as well. This instant contact may be fun at first, but it becomes annoying and then even overwhelming. Don't be on call all the time, and don't expect others to do so either. This is especially true if you (or the other person) work for a salary rather than a commission, because you end up working 60 hours for X dollars instead of 40 hours, clearly a better deal for the boss than you. The boss may call it being a team player, but it's actually a major paycut.
5- DON'T BE AFRAID TO SAY "I DON'T KNOW." Likewise ask "Who cares" a few times each day. Also ask "Do I really need to know this? Right now?" Do these several times a day, maybe jokingly at first, but it will help reestablish a proper perspective.
6- YOU CAN'T DO EVERYTHING IMMEDIATELY. Not everything needs to be done immediately. If this demand occurs regularly, and if you are sure you aren't procrastinating, either the technology is very poorly suited to the task or planning and time management needs to be addressed within the organization. Just because you can fax something at the last minute doesn't mean you should make a habit of doing so, plan ahead, and help others do the same by spelling out your expectations for scheduling.
7- CULTIVATE TECH-SAVVY HABITS. For example, DO back up your hard drive regularly, DO preview your presentation, DO print off handouts before the last minute, DO check the batteries, and so forth. If you leave yourself unprotected on the cutting edge, you will bleed sooner and often. Avoid self-inflicting stress that you could easily have controlled.
8- DEMAND TIME FOR TRAINING AND RETRAINING as a part of the job, don't accept the responsibility to do it at home on weekends, during lunch, or after hours. If you need more, ask for it. Insist that your training involve you doing the task, not just the early advocate showing you how to do it. Help train your co-workers and vice versa, you are on the same page compared to early adopter trainers.
In a technology-driven phase, focus groups will be early adopters; in a mature-product market they should be non-users? We've been led to think these problems are due to the "youth" of the computer industry, but how long is enough, it's over 25 years and counting now, needs assessment must begin to be at the top of the design list.
9- CULTIVATE A BUDDY SYSTEM for dealing with technostress, you are not alone. This person should NOT be your contact who helps you with technical problems per se, and preferably not an early adopter, rather someone who like you is focused on the task rather than the technology.
10- LET THE TECHNOLOGY DO THE REPETITION AND DETAIL WORK. You're not as good at details, you should do the creative work. And the creative work may not require the keyboard at all, fresh air and birds singing works wonders for inspiration; just because your computer can get along without such niceties doesn't mean you should deprive yourself.
11- GET A LOW-TECH HOBBY, and do something the old-fashioned way everyday, such as walk to have a face-to-face meeting instead of e-mail or telephone.
12- THINK TWICE OR THRICE BEFORE UPGRADING hardware or software. If it isn't broken leave it alone. In testing for something else, it was noted that 80% of the features that users said they wanted in the next version of an "industry-standard" product already existed in the current version (Head, 1998). Planned obsolescence is good for the seller, not for the buyer or user. If the technology didn't work in the first place, why should you rush in to write another cheque?
13- GET A GOOD ERGONOMIC CHAIR, get your desk properly lighted, and otherwise make your work area comfortable. People used to advise buying a good mattress because you spend a third of your life asleep, but these days too many of us spend a third of our life staring at the monitor and keyboard in minimalist conditions. You can get away with it for awhile, but eventually problems will arise.
14- LEARN SOME ERGONOMIC EXERCISES that you can do in your office, and DO them. In fact, there are some software products (see below) that FORCE you to take breaks by, for example, blanking your monitor for 60 seconds every 15 minutes, etc. Yes, this is REALLY annoying at first, but that just underscores the extent to which you are not following good practices. Don't give up the coffee break or its equivalent. Take a stroll to the water fountain, look out the window, go outside for lunch. Unplug from the keyboard. Just do it.
15- LAUGH MORE. Dilbert is right, technology is not as serious as the vendors and stock market analysts would have us believe, and the workplace surely has a silly side too. The futurists have been wrong so often it is pathetic -- they predicted 30-hour workweeks not long ago, video-telephones, personal helicopter backpacks, robo-vacuum cleaners, robo-lawnmowers, and so forth. And the industry experts have very vested interests in convincing us that we can't live without the newest gadgets. Don't get swept up in someone else's agenda, certainly not with your own technology at home, your own dollars.
16- INNOVATE. For example, put your (or your spouse's?) cell phone and pager in the freezer at night. Not only is it less distracting, but rumor has it that it helps prolong battery life? Spread the word!
Examples of ergonomic software:
Cringely, R. X. (1996) Accidental empires. New York: HarperBusiness.
Head, A. J. (1998) Are Microsoft's animated interface agents helpful? Online Magazine, January, Vol 22(1). URL: http://www.onlineinc.com/onlinemag
Landauer, T. K. (1995). The trouble with computers: Usefulness, usability, and productivity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Moore, G. (1995). Crossing the chasm: Marketing and selling high-tech products to mainstream customers. New York: Harper.
Norman, D. A. (1998). The invisible computer. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. URL: http://www.acs.ucalgary.ca/~iejll/volume4/mueller_v4n11.html
Weil, M. M, & Rosen, L. D. (1997). TechnoStress. New York: Wiley. URL: http://www.technostress.com