Does hi-tech cause high stress?

On Stress Awareness Day, Adrian Wakeling explores why the technology that helps us navigate our lives can also be detrimental to our health

One of the many paradoxes of modern working life is that what helps us also potentially hurts us. Technology allows us to work more flexibly and this often suits modern expectations for family and caring commitments. But technology also means that we are ‘always on’ and can rarely escape the work emails and nagging feelings of guilt.

It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that new technology and automation has been largely good for our physical health – with machines, for example, taking the heavy lifting out of our hands, but led to a worsening in our mental health, due to social isolation, work  intensification and the inability to shut down.

But technology is clever, obviously, and is playing the long game. As the stakes are raised – with the threat of millions of people losing their jobs to the robots and management decisions being made by algorithms – artificial intelligence offers to solve many of our future problems. As we seem unable to stop ourselves destroying the planet, we are promised machines that can take carbon monoxide out of the air and clean sources of energy. 

Mental health is one of the growing concerns at work and at home but more campaigners are placing their trust in technology to offer many of the interventions that seem too expensive or slow to be provided face-to-face. Recent research from Accenture found that almost four in 10 (39 per cent) workers are already using the likes of online services, mobile apps and wearables to manage stress and improve their mental wellbeing. What’s more, 57 per cent believe that apps and online technologies will become the go-to for many to manage their mental health. 

Does history teach us any valuable lessons? When the second industrial revolution came along 100 years or more ago, who was most at risk of being stressed out? Silent movie stars perhaps or candlestick makers? In fact, the award for ‘most stressed’ would have definitely gone to the horse. Hundreds of thousands of horses lost their status in society due the onset of cars. 

Some commentators wonder if the equivalent of horses in the current fourth industrial revolution are those workers doing often low-skilled, manual jobs. Think tank Centre for Cities suggested earlier this year that one in five jobs (around 3.6 million), including warehouse positions, sales assistants and retail cashiers, could be replaced by AI or automation by 2030. At the same time, we’re likely to see job growth and creation. But whether we’ll be facing mass redundancies or mass upskilling, this year’s National Stress Awareness Day theme, Does hi-tech cause hi-stress?, seems very apt.

Acas’ own research found very telling examples of how technology can give with one hand but take away with the other. In one case study in our report, Mind over machines: new technology and employment relations, nurses at an NHS trust were given iPads to speed up and improve the service to patients. This meant they could write up notes at the bedside and see more patients. The outcome:

A reduction in paperwork, but also a reduction in social interaction. There was suddenly no need to sit in a communal office and write up notes, removing the opportunity for ‘water cooler’ moments;

Higher efficiency, but also higher targets. Being able to get through more work inevitably means people are required to get through more work;

More flexibility around where people work, but less opportunity to escape work at home.

The addiction problem

I remember the first computer arriving in my office where I worked in the mid-1980s. The main stressor was the sudden addiction work friends and I developed for the one, very basic game on the computer. We even started coming in at weekends to play on it. Those were the days when, interestingly, work tech led home tech – rather than, as now, when work tech often lags behind.

We know from Acas research on the use of emails that virtual communication can be very addictive. These interactions promise meaning and fulfilment, waiting on for the next alert and the next. It’s both a “source and symbol of stress”, according to Barley et al (2011).

Take commuting, for instance. As if that weren’t stressful enough, a study by the University of the West of England found that 54 per cent of commuters were using their train’s wifi to deal with work emails, leading to calls for this to be counted as working time. When so many of us are seemingly now on call 24/7, it’s getting increasingly difficult to draw a line between work and home.

The big question for the future may be whether we can learn to partially unplug or engage with technology on terms that suit us. That will surely be the key to managing the stress that will inevitably continue to accompany technological progress. 

Adrian Wakeling is senior policy adviser at Acas