For many of us, stress is relentless. Sometimes, it lurks in our subconscious like a shadow; other times, it’s screaming in our faces.
When properly harnessed, a little stress can actually be useful. From an evolutionary perspective, stress helped early humans survive and outrun hungry lions. In the corporate world, it can push you to complete a big project on time or work to win an important account.
But stress can have a toxic effect on our bodies and even lead to premature death. No one likes the sound of that, yet in the modern world, we’ve intentionally incorporated a number of tools in our lives that result in a new, ever-present form of stress that sneaks in through our inboxes.
While we can feel the crick in our necks and our shortness of breath, many of us have only a vague idea of what stress actually is. In 1936, endocrinologist Hans Selye defined stress as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” Essentially, this means that when our bodies are forced to adapt to a new set of circumstances, it takes a physical toll on us.
Selye came to this conclusion after subjecting test animals to blaring lights, deafening noise and extreme changes in temperature, which caused them to experience a variety of negative effects, including stomach ulcers, lymphoid tissue shrinkage and enlargement of their adrenal glands. If kept under physical and emotional stress long enough, the animals experienced such complications as strokes, arthritis, kidney disease and heart attacks.
While our stress is hopefully not as severe as that of Selye’s lab animals, we still experience its effects, whether we realize it or not.
The Downside of Technostress
The proliferation of technology has, in many ways, made our lives easier and more productive, but we’re now learning that it causes a form of stress (known as technostress) that can have a range of negative effects on our health and well-being, which can actually reduce our productivity. Studies show that technology gives individuals a sense of being “on call” at all times, and this ever-present connection makes them feel like they’ve lost control over their time and space. Eventually, they’re overwhelmed by the volume and variation of their responsibilities, feel unable to accomplish tasks effectively and experience a high level of job dissatisfaction.
The productivity paradox can be seen in the numbers. On average, people spend 28 percent of their work time dealing with tech-related distractions, which costs money and drains morale. It doesn’t end once we leave the workplace, either. Constant connectivity follows wherever you go. A British survey revealed that smartphone users report feeling 30 percent more stressed since the advent of the smartphone, yet 60 percent of people say they can't go more than an hour without checking their phones. A whopping 24 percent check their phones while driving, while 54 percent wake up in the middle of the night to check texts or emails.
If we know that constantly checking our messages leads to stress—and that stress leads to illness—why don’t we simply unplug? As it turns out, exercising self-restraint isn’t easy. Self-control is a limited resource, and any time we are forced to use it—whether we’re dieting, forcing ourselves to exercise or avoiding email—we lose our ability to maintain control due to a process called "ego depletion." Ego depletion occurs when self-restraint is required over a long period of time, causing us to give in to whatever we’re trying to resist and impairing our performance.
Stopping the Silent Killer
Ironically, the answer to reducing our use of technology actually lies in incorporating more technology and being conscious of how we use it. Here are some tips for getting your technology to work for you, rather than being a slave to your inbox:
- Get two phones, one for the workweek and one for weekends.
- Block off email-free time at home and at work.
- Use software such as Asana, which limits the emails you receive.
- Use Unroll Me to compile your daily email subscriptions into a single email.
- Disable push notifications and social media on your phone.
Technostress isn't just an individual problem: Its impact on productivity and performance can be damaging to an organization as a whole. There are a number of actions your company can take to reduce email-related stress:
- Create a policy that restricts emailing after 7 p.m. or on weekends.
- Establish a 12- to 24-hour email response time policy.
- Bring in coaches to talk about blocking time off to work without distractions.
- Use instant messaging internally for things that are urgent, email for things that need a response within 24 hours and project management software for long-term projects.
At the end of the day, perhaps one of the most effective ways to reduce technostress is to remind yourself that email is not urgent. Tell yourself that if someone must contact you, he or she will call you.
Stress is something we all have to deal with, and technostress in particular can seem unavoidable. But by identifying the root causes of your stress, you're one step closer to reducing it. So commit to unplugging—even if it’s only for an hour each day—and get your company on board, too. It might just save your life.
Andrew Angus is the founder and CEO of Switch Video. whose animated explainer videos are effective marketing tools used by companies in 15 countries and eight different languages. Angus is also a member of the Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), an invite-only organization comprised of the world's most promising young entrepreneurs.
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