System overload

How to battle — and overcome — a bad case of digital distress.

Are you sitting comfortably in a tranquil setting while reading this article? Probably not. More likely, you’re in a rush as you check out this story (perhaps digitally, perhaps on paper) and have been interrupted by a cellphone call, an email from the office or a distracting bright light blinking from a printer that’s out of paper.

Whether you’re at home or at work, technology has taken over. Sure, it offers many gifts — the ability to do work quickly, access information with the click of a mouse, contact a colleague immediately — and yet, these so-called "gifts" can feel like presents you’d like to take back to the store for a full refund.

That feeling is best described as "technostress," a term coined back in the 1980s, but so much more fitting for today’s workplaces. A range of studies now link technology-driven offices to stress, depression and anxiety. The good news? Analyzing just how our gizmos impact us can actually help us find a bit more bliss in our workday. Read on to learn about the stress/tech connection, and for advice on how to keep your computer, smartphone and other gadgets from sending you over the edge.

Techno tension

Our fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system kicks in when we’re expected to return emails instantly, make decisions on the run and turn around projects on super-tight deadlines — so even though we’re just sitting at a desk, our hearts are pumping and our muscles are tensing. It’s true, we can’t blame tech entirely for this: downsized, post-recession workplaces expect one person to do the job of two (or three) and tech tools make this feasible, at least in theory. "The velocity of work has increased, but the speed is tremendous and often unmanageable," says David Posen, a doctor and stress specialist in Oakville, Ont., who wrote the book Is Work Killing You? "Life has sped up to the point where it’s in conflict with our natural rhythms and biology." As an example, Posen points to multiple messaging: a colleague calls you, then sends you an email and, minutes later, a text saying, "Where are you?" This sense of urgency, even if it’s overblown, gets us riled up. "If you respond, you’re giving power away to others," he says. And if you feel subject to the whim of colleagues and managers and have no control over your day, your job can feel like jail. Yet, we give in. "When people are getting laid off and jobs are hard to find, you adapt to whatever is being asked of you," says Mel Borins, a family physician in Toronto and an expert on stress.

Tech fix. Do your best to work efficiently and quickly, but push back when there’s unreasonable pressure to move at breakneck speed. Encourage your team to avoid multiple messaging so you’re not feeling overwhelmed and to set realistic timelines for getting back to people. Avoid instantly replying to emails, voicemails and texts, as it just encourages unmanageable expectations.

After-hours work creep

When work no longer happens in one physical place (your office), it has a way of happening while you’re getting your hair cut or watching your kid play soccer. "Technology is very intrusive. That same smartphone you’re using for work might be intruding into your personal world. The boundaries are blurred and it can feel like you never have downtime," says Borins. A recent Gallup survey found 62% of those polled said their workplace expected them to stay in touch after-hours. And half of those who regularly accessed work email after 5 p.m. reported feeling more stressed than those who didn’t.

These days, we seldom unplug. Nearly half of all Canadians do not take their allotted vacation time and 62% check in with the office while on holiday.

Experts have now coined the term "semi-somnia" for the disrupted sleep people get after working and checking email late at night. While our health suffers, work can flourish under these conditions, but really only in the short-term. "When you’re in touch all the time, you’re considered an ideal worker who’s fully committed to the job," says Scott Schieman, professor of sociology at the University of Toronto. But before long, we get overwhelmed and burnt out and "when workers suffer, the organization pays the price in productivity and loyalty," he adds.

Tech fix. Schieman warns that checking messages after-hours is a false choice, since we’re expected to be at our office’s beck and call. If you don’t want to deal with work emails on weekends, address the issue with your manager and discuss setting boundaries for communications outside of work hours.

Work, interrupted

Getting the job done can often be compromised when email alerts go off, phones ring, texts come in and, on top of all that, real people show up at your office door. A 2008 study found that in a group of about 50 people, those who were interrupted still finished tasks on time but experienced more stress as they sped up their work to get it completed. Similarly, research reveals we think we are great at multitasking, but we’re really not. Endless tasks sap your energy for the work you’re supposed to be doing.

Tech fix. Develop set times to check email and voicemail throughout the day — only keep in touch constantly if there’s an urgent issue afoot. "If you’re a morning person, you’re giving away your most productive 30 to 60 minutes a day if you start with email," says Posen. If you send fewer emails, you’ll get fewer back. Use the subject line and EOM (end of message) to send quick, concise notes. Before you hit send, be sure you’ve included all possible information so you don’t trigger a chain of messages to deal with later.

Techno glitches

One of Posen’s favourite sayings is, "Don’t ever let your computer know you’re in a hurry." When our email is down, our computer crashes or documents get corrupted or, worse, erased, our stress levels shoot through the roof. In 2012, 40% of 1,000 Canadians surveyed cited malfunctioning technology as their No. 1 complaint about their workplace. "When the Internet is down, it’s like chaos. You’re helpless," says Schieman.

Tech fix. Pull back from your expectations. Don’t assume things will work quickly or efficiently and avoid leaving huge projects to the last minute. Heed all warnings about data backup. And when things crash and burn, put a call into IT and grab your jacket for a walk around the block to de-stress.

Constant upgrades

Studies now show that one of the most stressful professions is information technology, in which know-how changes at a rapid, nonstop rate. For those in professions simply impacted by technology, there’s still the constant task of adapting to new or updated hardware and software. "If you are the kind of person who’s just not naturally technologically advanced, it’s really stressful to keep up with the changes," says Borins. Even for those with some aptitude, the constant learning is one more task on top of all the others.

Tech fix. Don’t let your workplace off the hook here: demand proper training on all new technology, no matter how small the upgrade. Make a point of asking how all devices in the office work, from the photocopier (many are pretty complex these days) to the scanner, so you don’t get stuck when the tech wizards aren’t nearby. There are many tricks others know about rebooting a laptop or troubleshooting a modem that they can share with you, but you have to ask.