How technology damages your mental health

The greatest cause of absenteeism isn’t the flu, a physical ailment or a sneaky sickie. And the greatest cause of underperformance isn’t a lack of motivation or inadequate training. In each case the leading culprit is poor mental health.

While there are many factors contributing to this worsening trend, one factor has particularly caught the eye of researchers: the use of technology.

In a comprehensive analysis to be published soon in the Australian Journal of Management, a research team led by the University of Sydney began with the premise that work can be good for health, as per earlier empirical evidence I’ve shared in this column. But in reviewing every credible study on this topic, they’ve discovered technology can also be the source of considerable harm.

It’s difficult to understate the ubiquity of technology, especially when taking into account the prevalence of automation, robotics, digitisation, artificial intelligence, machine learning and myriad other advancements rendering many jobs redundant.

Take, for example, the manufacturing sector which in Australia comprised 15 per cent of the workforce in the 1990s only to have more than halved since then to just 7 per cent today. It’s easy to imagine the anxiety that induces among employees who see their current positions and career aspirations threatened, not just in manufacturing but in any industry.

What’s left behind are jobs that are often cognitively stimulating which, granted, are more fulfilling but that are simultaneously more demanding.

As another example, consider the pervasiveness of automated services that enable you to check your account balance or make a reservation. These generally leave customers who can’t be serviced by a machine to vent their complex enquiries and complaints to staff, culminating in the burnout of even ordinarily positive people when they’re only ever dealing with angry and frustrated customers.

These technologies are also ever-changing, with staff constantly required to learn and adapt. That effort of change can be confronting and uncomfortable for many and, since technological developments are usually implemented with “little consideration of the impact on employees”, it’s no surprise the scholars have identified high levels of “stress, overload, exhaustion and burnout”.

These consequences can be attributed to the accelerated pace of work, the unrealistic productivity gains expected as a result of new technologies and a “norm of responsiveness” whereby people are given only a small amount of time to get used to one system before they’re suddenly informed they need to transition to something newer.

Beyond the introduction of technologies is the creeping takeover of those that already exist, with email the most culpable. Others accomplices include the excessive proportion of our day spent staring at a screen, exacerbated during the current work-from-home period, and made worse by the fact much of this is performed while we’re seated, which in itself attracts health-related problems.

No one’s suggesting technology is all bad or even mostly bad. Of course it has the potential to exert a beneficial influence on mental health. The automation of repetitive tasks frees employees to focus on more enjoyable and creative responsibilities, while another benefit is the ability for people to work from whichever location suits them best, assuming their employer permits it.

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