For some, the technologies used in the workplace are a source of anxiety. E-mail, for example, is a popular cause of concern and a regular scapegoat. Technologies can also be a source of anxiety when they overload, invade our privacy or threaten our sense of job security. For others, these same technologies can be challenging and stimulating when they make them feel empowered, productive or enthusiastic. Tarafdar, Cooper and Stich (2019) explain that these opposing appraisals of technology are part of the same process: “technostress”. Jean-François Stich explores the links between threatening and challenging technostress. It also presents ways to design information systems to mitigate threats and encourage opportunities.
Technostress: an individual process, with multiple branches and consequences
Technologies are not inherently threatening or challenging. For example, Stich, Tarafdar, Stacey and Cooper (2019) explain why the same volume of e-mails can be stressful for some but not for others. Technostress is therefore more of an individual process, with multiple branches and consequences.
The two steps of the technostress process
The first step (primary appraisal) is the appraisal of a technology as a potential source of either threat or challenge. Employees who are uncomfortable with technology, who are not very engaged, and in companies that are not very innovative, tend to perceive these technology conditions as more threatening than challenging.
In the second stage of the technostress process (secondary appraisal), individuals appraise their ability to avoid the threat or seize the opportunity and then act accordingly (challenge or threat coping responses). For example, they choose to turn off their phones so as not to be disturbed, or to leave it on to be more responsive. These actions are facilitated or discouraged by factors such as technological skills or corporate culture.
Seizing opportunities can finally lead to positive consequences such as feeling productivity, achievement, pride or pleasure. Conversely, failure to avoid threats usually leads to negative consequences such as feeling ineffective, dissatisfied or nervous.
Designing challenging rather than threatening technologies
A better understanding of the technostress process allows us to identify several ways to deal with it. The first lever of action is in the first step. It consists in encouraging users to perceive opportunities rather than threats in the technology conditions encountered.
In general, complex, non-ergonomic, invasive and constraining technologies will be perceived as threats by users. Ease of use and transparency about the purpose of the data collected should therefore be encouraged. Technologies can also be made interesting, even fun, by playful mechanisms (badges, progress bars).
Technologies designed to avoid threats and seize opportunities
A second way to deal with technostress is to help users avoid threats and seize challenging opportunities.
Users are better able to avoid threats when technologies provide them with integrated help, user guides, collaborative forums, or feedback on the success or reasons for failure of actions taken. Mechanisms can also encourage users to disconnect, calm down or change activities to disarm the threatening process.
To further seize opportunities, technologies can include customization or re-appropriation features. An intranet allowing the user to create his/her own dashboards allows him/her to take ownership of the data. In this example, the challenging process is not disarmed and can thus lead to positive feelings.
Threatening technostress is therefore not inevitable
Technostress is a process with multiple branches. Action levers exist to ensure that this technostress is challenging rather than threatening to users.
From the research paper
Monideepa TARAFDAR, Cary L. COOPER, Jean-François STICH, “The technostress trifecta – techno eustress, techno distress and design: Theoretical directions and an agenda for research“, Information Systems Journal, January 2019, vol. 29, no. 1, pp. 6-42
Jean-François Stich is a Doctor of Management (Lancaster University Management School), Assistant Professor at ICN Business School, and co-head of the Organisation and Human Resources research team at CEREFIGE, the management research laboratory of the University of Lorraine. His research focuses on the psychological impact of technology at work, covering topics such as technostress, email stress, virtual interactions, cyber deviance, etc. He has published in peer-reviewed journals such as Information Systems Journal, Journal of the Association for Information Systems, Information Technology & People, or New Technology, Work and Employment.