Technostress, when the use of technology at work becomes a problem

A group at the IMT School studies this form of psychophysical discomfort, and designs interventions to prevent and reduce it.

Gustav Dejert/Ikon Images/AGF

"Can I call you on Teams in five minutes?"
"Can you send me that file on the fly?"
'It is necessary to restart the computer in order to install some updates'.

Two questions and an "injunction". Chat, colleague and computer need us and all three at the same time. These are just some of the situations that everyone faces on a daily basis in a normal working day. And that they can become a source of "technostress". This is the name given to the specific stress caused by the excessive use of technological tools. A generic term that has entered common parlance, but is also used in a very specific way by researchers dealing with ergonomics, i.e. the scientific field that studies how to improve the interaction between man and the environment in which he lives and works.

At the IMT School, researchers from the MoMiLab (Molecular Mind Laboratory) research unit are conducting studies in this field in collaboration with the Neuroscience Lab of the Intesa Sanpaolo Innovation Center. We talk about it with Maria Donata Orfei, psychologist and researcher at the School.

What is technostress?

The word is now used generically in any conversation, but its exact definition is that of a syndrome caused by prolonged, constant and intensive interaction with technological and IT tools. Our studies and our interest have looked in a limited way to interaction in the workplace, even if in reality all of us, in everyday life and not necessarily in professional life, constantly deal with smartphones and other devices, and we are overwhelmed by emails, chats and social media in general.

How does this type of stress arise?

We have to think that while technology comes to our rescue in speeding up our work and being able to handle a lot of information at once, our brains do not have inexhaustible performance to keep up with the various tasks. Our working memory, that processes information in short-term memory, is a cognitive system with a limited processing capacity. Constantly forcing us to shift our attention from one task to another means 'rebooting' the brain each time. This is a very tiring activity because we have to instantly retrieve information of a certain type, work on it and then suddenly move on to something else, then retrieve another 'folder' and new files stored in our brains.

What does this mean in the way we work on a daily basis?

Multitasking is the classic example. Many of us, when working, have a desktop with many open windows. An e-mail arrives that needs to be answered urgently, in the meantime, perhaps a pop-up opens, then the mobile phone rings, the video meeting starts, chat messages arrive... Obviously, we are talking about people whose work involves constant, prolonged and diversified computer use.

Or again: many of us use several programmes at the same time, writing, statistics, video calls programs such as Meet, Zoom, Teams, Skype and so on, and sometimes they also have to be changed depending on the interlocutor or the task at hand. In short, we generally find ourselves performing very quickly what in neuropsychology is called set shifting,i.e. having to continuously switch from one topic to another, from one stimulus to another, from one response to another. This leads to an overload in the working memory and attentional system, which in turn causes a stress reaction.

Are there specific symptoms and signs of this type of stress?

Sense of irritation, nervousness, apathy are just some examples of manifestations, which belong to three categories: behavioural, psychophysical and cognitive. In general, the organism goes into distress when the stimuli add up, with the possible onset of psychosomatic symptoms. Insomnia, migraine and joint pain are among the most frequent. Then there are states of genuine anxiety with involvement of the breath and consequences on the body in general, which in turn can create further emotional distress.

Over time, it is not uncommon to find oneself in a state of dependency, whereby the smartphone used for work becomes almost a haunting because we are, or rather, we feel we always have to be available. Responding to e-mails becomes a 'moral imperative' because whoever is on the other end expects that we do this. This is accompanied by an undefined sense of discomfort or encroachment that can also spill over into private life. Work, occupying a large part of our day, can become a major source of stress.

What are the methods by which neuroscience studies technostress?

The approach we use is the multidimensional one, which integrates the classic psychological questionnaires with which stress is assessed with the measurement of psychophysical stress through instruments and devices. We use for example the electroencephalogram, the eye tracker, which is used to observe eye movement and measure pupil diameter dilation, an index of cognitive load of interest and attention, or the stress bracelet - similar to fitness watches - which provide us with information on how our body is activated in response to stress. By combining the subjective information we get from the tests with the objective measurements of the instruments, we get a complete picture of what is happening to the individual.

In cooperation with Intesa Sanpaolo, our group conducted a research study presented this year at the national congress of the Italian Society of Ergonomics and Human Factors. Involving more than two thousand five hundred bank employees, we took an initial set of data, a sort of starting snapshot, using the methods just described. As a next step, we then provided a series of indications for preventive interventions.

What are they?

There are tricks that, compatible with work efficiency, make interaction with technology smoother, more pleasant and, above all, healthier. Since 2020, suggestions, real policies or behavioural rules have been identified for companies, such as the right to disconnect, the indication to schedule meetings far enough in advance, establish time slots for use, use e-mail when there is no urgency.

In the research carried out in collaboration with Intesa Sanpaolo, we proposed and tested the effectiveness of some possible interventions. We subjected a group of workers to training that, on the one hand, suggested strategies for the healthy use of technology and, on the other, 'trained' the cognitive functions most involved. The training consisted of eighteen exercise sessions lasting about twenty minutes each, to be carried out with a recommended frequency of three times a week. The training included self-reflection exercises to become aware of one's own degree of stress and possible criticalities in the daily use of IT tools.

It then provided cognitive exercises to strengthen memory, attention, the set-shifting, the working memory. Finally, it included practices of relaxation, concentration and management of time and activities, so as to make the relationship with work tools more balanced and less stressful, and thus ultimately improve the quality of life.

The training proposed in the study proved to be effective: comparing the data collected before and after the training, we observed an effective and significant improvement in the subjective feeling of technostress. In particular, it was seen that the percentage of subjects who showed a moderate to high level of technostress before the training dropped from 39 per cent to 30 per cent, whereas in the control group who did not perform the training, no change was detected. Furthermore, according to the final satisfaction questionnaire, between 80 per cent and 90 per cent of the sample rated the experience as 'very satisfactory' in terms of originality, usefulness and benefits, and about half stated that they perceived an improvement in their stress and awareness. In general, satisfaction was slightly higher in women and younger subjects as well as in the over-fifties.

Marco Grande and Francesca Tabarrani

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