New website helps workers to avoid IT-related stress

Rapid access to information and ease of communication are the short-term benefits of information technology (IT). However, research by the Swedish work environment organisation, Prevent, in collaboration with an expert in social medicine, has demonstrated the risk of overload and the prevalence of IT-related stress among Swedish workers. Prevent recently launched a website in Swedish and English detailing how to avoid IT-related stress and how to detect it.

Introduction

We use information technology (IT) tools more than ever. Information technology has changed the way we work, making us more independent and flexible, and improving our ability to make decisions fast.

According to the 2011 Swedish national report (3.14Mb PDF) from the World Internet Project on the global impact of online technology, 86% of the country’s population aged over 18 years used the internet and nine out of ten users had personal computers. In 2011, 81% of those who used the internet did so every day compared with 43% in 2003. Use of mobile internet access doubled in 2011 and in the same year half the Swedish population used social networks. The number visiting social networks has been increasing by ten percentage points each year over the past four years (Findahl, 2011).

IT-related stress at work affects health and productivity

According to a press release dated 10 November 2010 (in Swedish) from the Swedish work environment organisation, Prevent, one problem associated with this much greater use of IT that has not been addressed sufficiently is the phenomenon of IT-related stress. As detailed in a subsequent press release dated 11 April 2011 (in Swedish), Prevent therefore set up a project together with Bengt Arnetz, Professor in Social Medicine at Uppsala University, to examine IT-related stress at work and how to avoid it.

Uninterrupted flows of emails that require answers, constant access to the internet and demands to make frequent updates to social media can all cause stress. The brain can handle intensive periods of stress but simply needs time to recover. According to Professor Arnetz, IT-related stress can lead to health problems for individuals and ultimately result in a lower output and efficiency at the workplace. IT-related stress can be just like any other negative stress syndrome and lead to both mental and physical symptoms such as sleep problems, memory disorders, depression and an increased burden on the cardiovascular system. Use of IT has also blurred the line between working hours and non-working hours, creating stressful situations for employees during non-office hours.

In October 2011, Prevent conducted a survey with over 600 Swedish workers. The results suggested that as many as one in four had a negative experience of using IT in the workplace. The groups most affected by the phenomenon were company managers and people aged 30–49 years.

Reasons given for their stress include the fact that many technical systems are not adapted to the way employees work and that many workers claim they have insufficient education to enable them to cope with the technology. Managers seem to suffer most, having to handle large quantities of information, and they tend to be logged onto the internet for work more than other groups during their free time. The survey also showed that men are more often online at home than women and that women are more concerned than men about the threat to their personal integrity from the increased use of information technology and communications (ITC).

Small actions can improve the situation

According to the Prevent project manager for the IT-stress project, Krister Skoglund, there are a number of small actions that can improve the working situation and prevent IT-related stress. This may involve establishing clear procedures and policies at the workplace on, for example, the use of social media and how quickly employees should answer questions sent via email. Individual workers can also avoid IT-stress by deciding not to open their work emails during non-office hours.

New website on IT-related stress

Prevent is tasked by its principals – the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise (Svenskt Näringsliv), the Swedish Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) and the Council for Negotiation and Co-operation (PTK) – to educate workers about occupational safety and health issues and to develop methods to help workplaces improve their work environment.

As part of its programme to achieve this objective, Prevent launched a website (in Swedish) in April 2012 that aims to help people avoid IT stress in their working life. The website presents current knowledge on IT-related stress and offers helpful tools such as signs or indicators of IT-related stress, checklists and measures to take in order to reduce stress. An English version of the website is also available.

The website also offers a simple stress test and a questionnaire to identify IT-related workloads. By using this questionnaire, workers can identify problems related to their workplace and become aware of how to solve issues causing IT-related stress.

Commentary

Work life is changing rapidly for many employees, involving more and more demands on their accessibility and availability. IT is of course essential for most workplaces, but research on how the new technologies affect us is vital. Prevent’s new website is a helpful tool and a step in the right direction.

Reference

Findahl, O. (2011), Swedes and the internet 2011 (3.14Mb PDF), .SE, Stockholm.

Mats Kullander and Ingrid Broman, Oxford Research

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