Should Employers Help Employees Turn Off Technology?

Pervasive and near-continual use of organizational information technology systems is taking a toll on some employees’ health.

“We may be entering an era in which human frailties begin to slow down progress from digital technologies,” write the authors of a recent MIT Sloan Management Review article. “The very qualities that make IT useful — reliability, portability, user-friendliness and fast processing — may also be undermining employee productivity, innovation and well-being.”

This downside to technology, what the authors call information technology’s “dark side,” may be robbing companies of some of the very productivity gains they get from their IT investments.

In “The Dark Side of Information Technology,” in the Winter 2015 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review, Monideepa Tarafdar (Lancaster University), John D’Arcy (University of Delaware), Ofir Turel (California State University) and Ashish Gupta (University of Tennessee Chattanooga) write that IT stress is real and that it's growing.

“The more time and effort employees spend keeping abreast of ever-changing applications, struggling through information gluts, trying to understand how best to navigate through and use IT, and making mistakes, the less time they have for the job their IT tools are intended to support,” they write.

The authors found examples where some employees actually resigned from their jobs “because they found it too stressful to cope with and learn to use constantly changing workflows/applications.”

In their wide-ranging article, the authors suggest a three-pronged approach for IT leaders, HR leaders and other senior executives to use to combat the impacts from information technology’s dark side:

1. Senior leadership should make mindful use of IT an organizational priority.

Among the specific suggestions made by the authors, they write that senior leadership need to develop strategic plans related to IT-use policies for identifying and mitigating technology risks. The authors say that leaders also need to commit resources for campaigns such as “email-free weekday afternoons” or “IT addition-awareness days” and must lead by example by showing, for instance, how to limit less urgent use of IT beyond working hours.

2. IT leaders should build and maintain vigilance against IT’s dark side.

IT leaders should drive both formal and informal learning about IT, write the authors. That includes conducting brown-bag events for people to share stories about how they actually use IT in both positive and negative ways. It also includes building what the authors term "dark-side resistant technical features" into IT infrastructure, such as blocking potentially addictive applications and showing people how to self-regulate with dashboard-based self-tracking.

3. HR leaders should monitor and enhance employees’ well-being.

HR leaders should implement HR programs that monitor and measure whether employees experience dark-side IT-use effects, say the authors. HR leaders should be implementing initiatives that foster positive job-related attitudes, recognizing that such attitudes can help thwart addiction, stress and IT misuse. HR leaders can also encourage and provide training resources for employees to maintain work-life-technology balance.

This range of engagement by employers is similar to what organization need to do when employees exhibit other types of additive behaviors. The reason: For some people, technology has become too big a pull to easily resist on their own. “Even as they dream of escaping from IT, many employees also confess to feeling 'addicted’ to some of these stress-causing technologies,” the authors write. For instance, “in a study of organizational mobile email users, we found that 46% exhibited medium to high addiction-like symptoms.”

Note that the authors’ suggestions for managers aren’t just about blocking and tackling. “We suggest that managers go beyond technology-oriented solutions and encourage employees to step back and examine their personal relationship with IT,” they write.

For more on this topic, including the conditions that create stress from IT use and the conditions that indicate IT misuse, read the full article.

For more on the need to turn off and recharge, see “Why Sleep Is a Strategic Resource,” by Christopher M. Barnes (University of Washington’s Foster School of Business) and Gretchen Spreitzer (University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business).