Illuminating the ‘dark side’ of IT

IT provides an immensely powerful way of boosting human productivity at work. But are we now reaching the point where what can be achieved is being slowed down by human limitations, and where the IT systems that are part of our daily working lives are having a detrimental effect on our health?

Ironically, the same qualities that make IT so valuable – its reliability, portability, user-friendliness and the capacity to process information fast – could now be undermining employee productivity, innovation and well-being, according to Professor Monideepa Tarafdar and colleagues who have been examining what they call the ‘dark side’ of IT – the unforeseen consequences of becoming reliant on technology. And, as their recent article in MIT Sloan Management Review makes plain, the symptoms now emerging are something that senior managers and HR managers in organisations ignore at their peril.

Over the past seven years Tarafdar and her co-authors Dr John D’Arcy (University of Delaware), Professor Ofir Turel (California State University Fullerton) and Dr Ashish Gupta (University of Tennessee Chatanooga) have carried out a series of studies exploring the workplace implications of technology-induced stress (‘technostress’), technology addiction, and IT misuse and deviant behaviour.

The findings from these independent studies, in which they surveyed more than 3,100 employees in organisations in various sectors across the US, point significantly in one direction, say the authors: “the more relentlessly organisations embrace technology, the more ‘technostress’ their employees suffer.” And, they suggest, organisations now need to find ways of both monitoring and tackling this in order to stem the drain on productivity.

A closer look at technostress

Tarafdar’s particular interest in technostress predates the arrival of smart phones, but new working practices have also helped to make this form of stress more prevalent. Bombarded by information coming in simultaneously from several devices, people now have to multitask very rapidly. Mobile devices are often taken between home and work, and used in both spheres – and along with remote working and flexitime, this serves to blur the traditional boundaries between ‘home’ and ‘work’.

Constant connectivity ramps up the compulsion to respond whenever new information emerges – it becomes harder to switch off and ignore the work email from across the world that arrives at 10 pm. For some people, says Tarafdar, this may be a welcome and useful way of managing their workload. But for others it translates into a feeling of pressure that they ought to be responding, even if they are not.

Five specific dimensions to technostress are identified:

  • Uncertainty – when company IT systems are constantly being changed or upgraded, requiring employees to learn applications afresh (often without sufficient support) and adapt own their work practices and workflows accordingly
  • Invasion – where employees are unable to prevent the effects of office-related technology spilling over into their personal lives in a way that is unwelcome
  • Insecurity – where those who are not particularly interested in keeping up with technologies fear that their job performance will suffer as a result and that others with better skills will be more valued by the organisation
  • Overload – where getting up to speed with using the technology is too time-consuming, and people feel swamped by the amount of work involved in learning to use it, reading manuals, etc
  • Complexity – where individuals find that the technology itself is very difficult to use or have to grapple with multiple systems in order to do their job

Interestingly, the research findings appeared to dispel some of the myths surrounding older workers and technology – particularly the notion that it is this group that feels insecure because of a failure to ‘keep up’.

“We found that older or more experienced people suffer from less technostress,” says Tarafdar, “perhaps because they know how to navigate through the information that is coming in and are more experienced at prioritising when and whom to answer, and managing their workflows. They know how to manage their relationships and not let themselves be dictated to by technology.”

Technostress not only led to lower productivity but was also found to impact, over time, on the quality of relationships, so important in service-oriented roles.

For example, a study of professional salespeople in several firms showed a high correlation between their levels of technostress and their overall sales performance in areas not directly related to technology.

“We also did some work in a hospital where we looked at the performance of the physicians, as reported by the patients,” she adds. “We saw that patient satisfaction with the hospital suffered because of the physicians’ and nurses’ experience of technostress.”

What was striking, she says, is that many of those experiencing technostress were in no sense techno-phobes: “these were people who embrace technology and use it all the time. This is not dependent on specific technologies, it is about the movement of technology – and that does not stop, since technology never stands still.”

So, how can organisations respond, and where should the initiative be taken? It needs to come from three quarters, argue Tarafdar and her co-authors: senior executives, IT leaders, and HR leaders.

Minimising the risks to both organisation and employees and promoting responsible use of IT requires policy and practical initiatives of varying kinds – and the authors set out some broad guidelines (summarised below) for organisations on key priorities.

The overall objective should be to safeguard both the organisation and its employees against the risks that IT can pose, if used excessively, thoughtlessly or deviantly. And, equally vitally, to develop a culture within the organisation, instilled from the very top, which ensures that people within organisations become more reflective about their own use of IT, and aware of its potentially negative consequences as well as its benefits.

Dealing with such IT-related issues may represent a fresh and unexpected challenge for HR leaders, and not something previously on their radar. But, as Tarafdar argues, “If an individual’s job satisfaction or performance is suffering as a result of technology, it becomes an HR issue. When you look at the HR literature and what senior HR managers talk about, they focus on retention, motivation and job satisfaction, etc ­– and this is something that impacts directly upon that.”

Tarafdar is continuing to investigate the negative consequences of IT for organisational users, and will be co-editing a forthcoming special issue of the Information Systems Journal that will bring together further international research on this area.

Further details of the research findings and a more extensive discussion of how organisational leaders can combat IT’s dark side can be found in the article in MIT Sloan Management Review.

The Dark Side of Information Technology, by Monideepa Tarafdar, John D’Arcy, Ofir Turel and Ashish Gupta, is published in the Winter 2015 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review.


Combatting the dark side of IT

Senior leaders   Top managers should make it a strategic priority to raise organisational awareness of IT’s potential downsides, committing resources for specific campaigns and initiatives and building mindful use of technology into strategic plans. They should incentivise employees to experiment on how to use technology most effectively, and – not least – lead by example in their own use of IT.
IT leaders   IT leaders need to drive a better understanding of technology through formal and informal learning where employees are encouraged to share their experience (good and bad) of using technology. Wider ongoing support is needed, rather than merely one-off technical training. Engaging more closely with users in designing systems is important, as are systems and mechanisms that guide employees on how to use technology effectively and help them in monitoring their use of IT.
HR leaders   HR leaders should monitor technostress levels, and, as part of the overall employee development package, implement initiatives to help address the potential negative effects of technology. They should also provide training resources to help and encourage employees to maintain an appropriate balance between work, life and technology, recognising that this may mean different things to different individuals.