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Crossing to the Dark Side: Examining Creators, Outcomes, and Inhibitors of Technostress


asleep at laptop computer

Credit: Shutterstock Images

"Once a new technology rolls over you, if you're not part of the steamroller, you're part of the road."
        —Stewart Brand
        Author, commentator, and speaker

Mike, a Fortune 100 senior-management executive, spends a good part of his annual vacation answering office email messages. He has trouble focusing on family; he forgets things like dinner plans. Joanne, a university secretary, found it difficult to use a new student-management application. Daunted by the sheer multiplicity of its features, exhausted by repeated crashes, and unhappy at the lack of IT support, she took early retirement. Pat, a purchasing manager, is prompt at answering email and voicemail messages, and has received "responsive employee of the month" awards. But, every time she interrupts whatever she is doing to answer messages, it takes her about 15 minutes to refocus her full attention back to that task before another message comes along and the cycle start again. Paul, a manager at a livestock feed company, uses his 45-minute office commute time to email, text, or call in instructions from his BlackBerry to fulfill last-minute customer orders, so that his commute is not "wasted." He dangerously juggles his phone while driving.

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Key Insights

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These vignettes, gleaned from contemporary accounts (for example, Freeman,3 and Richtel13) and our observations, illustrate an interesting and increasingly persistent dichotomy in the way that emerging information systems (IS)a for work and collaboration are affecting professional users. One aspect of this dichotomy is that aided by workflow applications, mobile computing, and communication devices, collaborative software, and computer networks, users can quickly and easily access information, work from anywhere, and share information and insights with colleagues in real time. But these same technologies can make them feel compulsive about being connected, forced to respond to work-related information in real time, trapped in almost habitual multitasking and left with little time to spend on sustained thinking and creative analysis. These latter outcomes constitute the phenomenon of "technostress."12,20

Professionals experience technostress when they cannot adapt to or cope with information technologies in a healthy manner. For instance, they may find that constant connectivity blurs the home and work contexts, creating difficulty in maintaining work-life balance. Or, they may want to process and respond to office email and text messages in real time, so that they are continually interrupted and distracted by incoming information, a state known as "continuous partial attention."5 Or, they may be swamped with information from multiple information sources and connectivity devices, rushing to process "whatever" information is available online, and ignoring the deep thinking necessary for innovation and creative decision-making.

Anecdotal studiesb of business professionals find a strong increase in work-related use of information technologies in the workplace and at home after standard work hours. About 80% of the respondents in this particular study feel that workplace IS has made their work more stressful through system problems and errors, steep technology-related learning curves, and higher technology-use related workload. Meanwhile a few initiatives involving academia-industry interest groups, such as the Information Overload Research Group have emerged to build awareness and research around information overload and study efforts for helping professionals manage consistently increasing volumes of information. These examples show the increasing prevalence and managerial recognition of technostress.

Research-driven understanding of technostress is fragmented, based mainly on studies enumerating stress-creating conditions in specific contexts, such as librarians' use of IS.2 Systematic and inclusive large-scale research investigating causes, outcomes, and reduction-mechanisms for technostress has been largely absent. Therefore, there is a lack of frameworks for individuals and organizations wishing to understand, anticipate, and counter the effects of technostress.

This article reports on a study of 233 IS users in an effort to understand the phenomenon of technostress. We seek to explain why technostress is created; how it varies across individuals; what its adverse consequences are; and how organizations can reduce them. The accompanying sidebar "Study Details and Research Methods" explains the three phases in which the research was conducted. We use the framework shown in the accompanying figure to examine and understand the technostress phenomenon.c

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Key Findings

Our key findings include the specific factors that create technostress among professionals using IS. We also found that those who experience technostress find themselves dissatisfied with their jobs and impaired in their use of IS for their work tasks. The extent of technostress an individual experiences depends on particular demographics. We also identified inhibiting mechanisms that organizations can deploy to diminish the causes and outcomes of technostress. We present our findings here, framed against the objectives of the study.

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1. What conditions create technostress for professionals?

Our research found five technostress-creating conditions.

"Techno-overload" describes situations where use of IS forces professionals to work more and work faster. Mobile computing devices together with social networking and collaborative applications make it possible to process simultaneous streams of real-time information, resulting in information overload, interruptions, and multitasking. Information overload exposes users to more information then they can efficiently handle and effectively use, leading to "Information Fatigue."20 Interruptions (for example, email- and text-based workflow related alerts) pressure users into attending to information as soon as it arrives, creating anxiety, tension and workflows disconnects, and making sustained mental attention difficult. Multitasking implies professionals simultaneously working on different applications and tasks, trying to do more in less time, and experiencing tension.

"Techno-invasion" describes situations where professionals can potentially be reached anywhere and anytime and feel the need to be constantly connected. The regular workday extends into family hours including vacations; "not connecting" becomes disquieting. At the same time, due to this kind of continual connectivity, individuals feel tethered to these technologies and experience intrusion on their time and space. Hence, they experience frustration and stress.

"Techno-complexity" describes situations where the complexity associated with IS forces professionals to spend time and effort in learning and understanding how to use new applications. Even as competitive and vendor pressures to keep using the latest hardware, software, and applications have increased, technical capabilities and terminology associated with IS have become more complex. New applications can take months to learn, and manuals can be unwieldy and impenetrable. Users can thus find the variety of applications, functions, and jargon, intimidating and difficult to understand, and consequently feel stressed.

"Techno-insecurity" emerges in situations where users feel threatened about losing their jobs to other people who have a better understanding of new IS. As the overall technology cognizance of professionals increases, it is common to find newer, often younger, recruits who come equipped with a higher comfort level with, and greater inclination and enthusiasm to use, new IS. Existing professionals may thus feel insecure or cynical about IS, leading to tension and stress.

"Techno-uncertainty" refers to contexts where continuing changes and upgrades to IS do not give professionals a chance to develop a base of experience for a particular application or system. They find this unsettling because their knowledge becomes rapidly obsolete. Although they may initially be enthusiastic about learning new applications and technologies, constant requirements for refreshing and updating eventually create frustration and anxiety. Further, off-the-shelf workflow applications cannot be used "as is." They require configuration and customization during implementation, which are highly political and stressful processes. Even after implementation, individuals are apprehensive about using them because applications take time to stabilize, and documentation and IT department support may be poor.

Table 2 shows the common technostress creating factors. They can be used to evaluate technostress inducing conditions in a firm.

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2. What are the effects associated with technostress?

We found seven consequences of technostress-creating conditions:

They exacerbate role overload. Professionals experience role-related overload when they perceive their work to be too much or too difficult. Technostress-creating conditions heighten such perception. Techno-complexity, for example, implies greater effort in understanding and using IS, and techno-uncertainty means users have to repeatedly and frequently apply such effort, whenever there are IS-related changes. Techno-overload forces them to process more information and simply do more in less time.

They are associated with increased role conflict. Role-related conflict is common for those facing contradicting requirements from their job. Technostress-creating conditions accentuate these contradictions. For example, techno-invasion, in potentially extending office hours to round-the-clock, creates conflict from work and home roles. Or, techno-uncertainty, associated with frequent IS changes, may create inconsistencies between new and existing workflows. Professionals simply may not agree with the "best practices" offered by new applications. Techno-insecurity may force professionals to acquire new IS-related skills in conflict with existing ones. Since role-conflict and role-overload are detrimental to managerial performance,7 their increase associated with technostress is clearly troubling.

Technostress is linked to reduced job satisfaction. Professionals who experience and attempt to cope with technostress creators are likely to have negative appraisals of their jobs.

Professionals experiencing technostress face decreased innovation in their tasks while using IS. Techno-overload, for instance leads to hurried and ineffective information processing and does not leave sufficient time to look for imaginative and innovative ways to accomplish work using IS. Techno-complexity requires users to learn; inability or unwillingness to do so hinders them from innovating in IS-mediated tasks.

Professionals experience reduced productivity while using IS in their work. Techno-complexity forces them to keep updated with ever-changing applications and possibly making mistakes, thus wasting time. Techno-uncertainty may require troubleshooting and technical assistance, during which IS-enabled tasks have to be suspended. Techno-overload compels professionals to spend their time struggling through unnecessary information glut—time that otherwise might be applied to more relevant work tasks.

Professionals experiencing technostress are dissatisfied with the IS they use. For example, techno-overload makes it difficult for them to identify useful information. Techno-invasion is privacy depriving.d Techno-complexity can be overwhelming and intimidating. Techno-uncertainty can mean system crashes and lost data. All of these conditions create dissatisfaction with systems and applications. Users' satisfaction with IS being a widely recognized surrogate for the success of IS,16 technostress can thus reduce the likelihood of IS success.

Technostress creating conditions are associated with reduced commitment of professionals to their current organizations' goals and values. Both job dissatisfaction and lack of organizational commitment impair employee functioning and are substantial costs to the firm.


Men experience more technostress than women. In general, women tend to use IS when they have to whereas men are more inclined to use IS when they want to.


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3. How can organizations reduce the creating conditions and consequences of technostress?

Our study identified four kinds of organizational mechanisms that can offset the intensity and outcomes of technostress creating conditions.

"Literacy Facilitation" describes mechanisms that educate through sharing of IS-related knowledge. These might include practices by which IS professionals provide training and documentation on applications and systems to functional users, to increase IS-related awareness. Such practices reduce the intensity of techno-complexity, for instance, by helping users cope with the demands of learning about new IS. They could also, for example, offset the productivity reducing effects of technostress creators by speeding up learning and decreasing users' mistakes in the context of IS use.

"Technical Support Provision" describes assistance and technical support provided to professionals in the context of their use of IS. Such support can reduce techno-complexity and techno-uncertainty, for example by addressing their IS-related problems and queries. A responsive and easily reached help desk can guide professionals in using and familiarizing with new IS, increasing their satisfaction. For transaction-processing and workflow applications where technical hitches and mistakes during use can disrupt critical processes, technical support is key to reducing such interruption and offsetting the effects of decreased productivity.

"Technology Involvement Facilitation" describes mechanisms that keep professionals involved in information systems adoption and development. Such mechanisms include informing them about why new applications are adopted, including them in adoption planning processes, letting them know about how applications might change workflows, and encouraging them to use the new systems. Professionals who are thus involved will be familiar with a new system even before they start using it—thus lessening techno-complexity. Having some measure of influence over new IS adoption and implementation, they will not perceive the associated changes to be as disrupting. They may experience, for instance, less techno-uncertainty. They are also likely to have provided inputs regarding desirable system features—increasing usefulness and satisfaction.

"Innovation Support" describes mechanisms that encourage professionals to experiment and learn. These include creating a general climate that promotes supportive relationships among employees, facilitates communication and discussion, encourages new ideas and risk-taking, and frames incentives for learning. These mechanisms help users understand IS-mediated task and technology changes and encourage them to explore and learn new functionalities afforded by IS. They experience, for example, less techno-complexity. They are more emboldened to take risks and experiment with IS, which reduces techno-insecurity and increases the extent to which they can innovate using IT.

Thus, we find that organizations can counter technostress conditions and their outcomes by involving professionals in IS adoption and development, increasing their technology cognizance, offering proficient technical support, and creating a general climate in which experimentation and learning can thrive. In addition, we observe that many organizations today have enacted policies to limit unnecessary email distribution—perhaps an implicit acknowledgment, of factors such as techno-overload. Knowledge-intensive companies (for example, software and consulting) have knowledge management staff dedicated to identify and codify reusable knowledge modules and store them in knowledge repositories, in order to reduce the overload experienced by employees from uncollated information. Table 3 shows the associated survey items from our study. These can be used to assess the extent of an organization's readiness in coping with technostress.

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4. Who is more likely to be affected by technostress?

Two demographic factors—gender and computer confidence—have a major influence on technostress. Men experience more technostress than women. In general, women find IS less easy to use than men.4 However, women tend to use IS when they have to whereas men are more inclined to use IS when they want to.19 Where use was voluntary, men were more inclined to use IS and hence experienced a higher intensity of technostress-creating conditions than women. Professionals with greater computer confidence experience less technostress because they are likely to have more faith in their ability to handle the disruptions arising from technostress-creating conditions.

Other factors having a relatively minor influence on technostress include age, formal education, and experience with computers. Older professionals experience less technostress. Intuitive reasoning suggests that younger people, being more familiar with technology, would experience less technostress. However, it is also true that older people are better able to handle stress in general and computer-related changes6 because of maturity. Also, the older employees in our sample had greater organizational tenure, which means they had more organization-specific experience and better understanding of how to assimilate the stress-creating effects of IS in their work context. Further, having possibly greater power within the workplace, they are likely to have had more choice and latitude in their use of IT. Hence, they were possibly able to appropriately pace out IT-related change and learning activities, thus experiencing lower technostress.

Professionals with greater formal education are more exposed to computers in general. They thus experience less technostress. They also find it easier to adapt to technostress, in part by merging their computer learning and experience from the work and home contexts. Professionals who have used computers for a longer time experience less technostress because they are more familiar with, and would possibly have been witness to more, disruptions, changes, upgrades, and evolutions with respect to IS. They are also likely to be more familiar with how the organization will react culturally and historically to changes in the context of IS. Thus, they are better able to handle technostress.

These findings may of course, be sample specific and organization dependent. Table 4 shows possible demographic specific approaches for managing technostress.

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Conclusion

IS is changing the rhythm and pace of organizational life in unexpected ways. Emerging research and opinion commentary has only begun to explore various aspects of these changes. Our investigation shows that technostress is a manifestation of an undesirable phenomenon spawned by use of IS in the workplace. In identifying the five technostress-creating conditions and their outcomes, we speak to increasingly urgent and wide-ranging managerial interest in understanding the dark side of IS. In proposing inhibiting mechanisms, we demonstrate ways for reducing the causes and effects of technostress. In showing that technostress is demography-dependent, we suggest that firm- and individual-specific approaches are required for managing it.

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References

1. Doll, W.J. and Torkzadeh, G. End-user computing involvement: A dis¬crepancy model. Management Science 35, 10 (1989), 1151–1172.

2. Ennis, L.A. The evolution of technostress. Computers in Libraries 25, 8 (2005), 10–12.

3. Freeman, J. Not so fast. The Wall Street Journal (Aug. 21, 2009).

4. Gefen, D. and Straub, D.W. The relative importance of perceived ease of use in is adoption: A study of e-commerce adoption. J. Association of Information Systems 1, 8 (2000), 1–30.

5. Hemp, P. Death by information overload. Harvard Business Review (Sept. 2009), Boston, MA, 49–53.

6. Hudiberg, R.A. and Necessary, J.R. Coping with computer stress. Journal of Educational Computing Research 15, 2 (1996), 113–124.

7. Kahn, R., Wolfe, D., Quinn, R., Snoek, J., and Rosenthal, R. Organizational Stress: Studies in Role Conflict and Ambiguity. Wiley Publishing, NY, 1964.

8. Lazarus, R.S. Psychological stress in the workplace. J. Social Behavior and Personality 6 (1991), 1–13.

9. Marsh, H.W. and Hocevar, D. Application of confirmatory factor analysis to the study of self-concept: First- and higher-order factor models and their invariance across groups. Psychological Bulletin 97 (1985), 562–582

10. Meyer, J.P. And Allen, N.J. Commitment in the Workplace: Research, Theory and Applications. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA, 1997.

11. McKeen, J., Guimaraes, T. and Wetherbe, J. The relationship between user participation and user satisfaction: An investigation of four contingency. MIS Quarterly 18, 4 (1994), 427–451.

12. 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), 417–433.

13. Richtel, M. Lost in e-mail, tech firms face self-made beast. The New York Times (June 14, 2008).

14. Rizzo, J. R., House, R. J., and Lirtzman, S. I. Role conflict and ambiguity in complex organizations. Administrative Science Quarterly 15 (1970) 150–163.

15. Sanserino, M. Lawsuits question after-hours demands of email and cell phones. The Wall Street Journal (2009).

16. Smith, A., Schlozman, L., Verba, S. and Brady, H. The Internet and Civic Engagement. Pew Internet and American Life Project Report, (Sept. 2009).

17. Torkzadeh, G. and Doll, W. J. The development of a tool for measuring the perceived impact of information technology on work. Omega 27, 3 (1999), 327–339.

18. Tushman, M. and Nadler, D. Organizing for innovation. California Management Review 27, 3 (1986), 74–92.

19. Venkatesh, V. and Morris. M.G. Why don't men ever stop to ask for directions? Gender, social influence, and their role in technology acceptance and usage behavior. MIS Quarterly 24, 1 (2000), 115–139.

20. Weil, M. and Rosen, L. TechnoStress: Coping with Technology @work @home @play. J. Wiley, New York, 1997.

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Authors

Monideepa Tarafdar (monideepa.tarafdar@utoledo.edu) is an associate professor in the College of Business and Innovation at The University of Toledo, OH.

Qiang Tu (jtu@saunders.rit.edu) is a professor in the Saunders College of Business at Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, NY.

T.S. Ragu-Nathan (traguna@utnet.utoledo.edu) is a professor in the College of Business and Innovation at The University of Toledo, OH.

Bhanu S. Ragu-Nathan (braguna@utnet.utoledo.edu) is a professor in the College of Business and Innovation at The University of Toledo, OH.

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Footnotes

a. IS includes information and communication technologies used by professionals for work-related information processing.

b. Details of one such study can be found at http://www.technostress.com/busstudy2000.htm

c. The framework is based on the "Transaction Theory" of stress (Lazarus8) which suggests that an individual experiences stress due to stress-creating factors or conditions. Stress is manifest in adverse outcomes for the individual. Inhibiting mechanisms reduces stress. The extent to which an individual perceives stress-creating conditions to be present depends on demographic characteristics germane to the specific context in which stress is created.

d. Sanserino15 reports on legal issues precipitated by employees of organizations where there are apparent requirements for using IS for work after office hours.

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Figures

UF1Figure. Creating conditions, outcomes, and inhibiting mechanisms of technostress.

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Tables

T1Table 1. Data analysis results.

T2Table 2. How techno-stressed are your employees?

T3Table 3. How prepared is your organization to counter and manage technostress?

T4Table 4. Demography-specific implications for managing technostress.

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