Three-minute explainer on… technostress

Technology is meant to help us, but thanks to technical breakdowns, increasingly overwhelming complexity and the lure of the doomscroll, all too often it’s stressing us out

Three-minute explainer

In the optimistic post-war climate that birthed sci-fi such as the Jetsons and Star Trek, the technologies of the distant future promised to help and assist us – we would work fewer hours and maximise our leisure time. 

But, so far, the 21st century has produced a slightly different reality. We haven’t quite cracked robot butlers or replicators. And, despite all the benefits that digital technologies bring, technology is really stressing us out

Remote work has blurred the boundaries between home and office and empowered bosses to snoop on staff. Artificial intelligence is changing the world of work so quickly that it’s led to so-called AI anxiety, with the rate of change worrying employees about their job security. 

Tech is shrinking our attention spans and keeping us locked into social media ecosystems dominated by doomscrolling. Computer crashes and other breakdowns are even associated with increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol. And anyone with a malfunctioning printer will surely have indulged in Office Space-style equipment-smashing flights of fancy

But being overwhelmed by technology is not a new phenomenon. The Luddites famously smashed up the wage-stealing looms and a little more recently, in 1984, psychoanalyst Craig Brod coined the term ‘technostress’, which he described as “a modern disease of adaptation caused by an inability to cope with the new computer technologies in a healthy manner”. 

In other words: too much technology, introduced too quickly and without appropriate training can quickly lead to burnout, anxiety and poor performance at work. 

Rather than making life easier, introducing tech could lead to a huge increase in an employee’s workload as they struggle to grapple with technological complexity. 

Needless to say, technology is much more integrated into our everyday lives than it was when Brod coined the term technostress, before the dawn of the world wide web. No wonder people are feeling so overwhelmed now. 

Managing technostress

Technologies are rarely inherently good or bad. Instead, what’s usually important is how they’re implemented. This can be true for cutting-edge technologies like generative AI or for daily driver software and hardware. Good implementations help us, while poor implementations frustrate and annoy us. 

But there is a way to manage the technostress. In a 2019 paper in Information Systems Journal, researchers at the University of Manchester suggested separating the kinds of stressors that employees experience.

‘Techno distress’, the researchers said, is when people feel unable to cope with the technology they use – when it is perceived either as a threat or a hindrance. For instance, when a senior leader shoehorns a new platform or technology into an organisation without any accompanying change-management programme.

‘Techno eustress’ is its opposite, when technology is perceived as a challenge but one that’s enabling and empowering. 

IT systems can cause more distress or eustress depending on how they’re introduced, so the researchers recommended an approach that purposefully enhanced eustress and mitigated distress. When technology is deployed, it should be presented as a skill to be mastered that will lead to positive outcomes, rather than something to be wrangled or wrestled with. Easier said than done. 

Meanwhile, leaders should be upfront about new technologies, setting clear guidelines and expectations around them. Opportunities should be demonstrated to employees as part of careful change-management programmes. And, remote or hybrid work policies must be mindful of hidden stressors, such as over-burdening staff with virtual meetings or introducing new workplace tech tools without carefully considering possible burdens on employees.