Mental Health in a Digitalized Workplace

Digital technology in the workplace
Negative impacts of digital working
Positive impacts of digital working
The future of digital working
References 
Further reading


The use of digital technology within the workplace can have significant positive and negative impacts on employee mental wellbeing and job satisfaction. As digital working becomes more common, employers may need to implement new working practices that consider these impacts.

Image Credit: fizkes/Shutterstock.com

Image Credit: fizkes/Shutterstock.com

Digital technology in the workplace

Digitalization refers to incorporating digital technologies into business and society, aiming to improve processes. The use of technology within the workplace has increased dramatically over the last decade; for example, the proportion of European workers reporting frequent use of digital technology increased from 36% to 57% between 2005 and 2015.

Today, most organizations use some form of digital technology. The technologies most often used in the workplace include artificial intelligence, robotics, and information and communication technologies, such as smartphones and social media.

Incorporating these technologies into working environments has caused changes in how people communicate, perform tasks, and socialize. It has also led to changes in labor markets, as some job roles are replaced by technology, and others require individuals with new qualifications. Additionally, digital working can significantly impact workers’ job satisfaction and mental health positively and negatively.

Negative impacts of digital working

The negative impacts of digitalization include the possibility of employees experiencing technostress. Technostress is a psychological response caused by an inability to cope with introducing new digital technologies.

Technostress has been linked with biological stress reactions. For example, research has shown that computer breakdowns can cause elevated cortisol levels, and ICT-related disruption can increase salivary alpha-amylase, a marker of acute stress.

The use of digital technology within the workplace can induce technostress for a variety of reasons, including the negative impact it may have on family life, as people are now more connected to work while at home.

This can blur the lines between work and family life, limiting the ability of employees to relax and unwind after the working day is over and potentially reducing the amount of time people spend with family and friends. Not only can this negatively affect employee mental health, but also the mental health of their loved ones.

Digitalization can also impact people’s private lives by creating an expectation that employees are always available to work, increasing staff workloads, and limiting their free time.

“You can never do enough": Mental health in the digital workplace

In a study by Pena-Casas et al. (2018), around 66% of surveyed workers reported an intensification of work and an increase in the pace of work due to digitalization. This could have a negative impact, as excessive workloads cause psychological distress symptoms like stress, anxiety, and sleep deprivation.

On top of this, digital technology makes it easier for employers to monitor employees. This monitoring can include keeping track of workers’ ICT use and location, as well as how they spend their time.

While this can increase the autonomy of those in higher positions, such as managers, it reduces the autonomy of other employees. This can potentially lead to workers feeling controlled and under more pressure to meet work-related goals, which could ultimately cause a reduction in mental wellbeing.

However, despite the many negative impacts that digital working can have on employee mental health, it can also have positive impacts.

Positive impacts of digital working

Digitalization can increase the ease of data sharing across organizations, as well as improve worker communication. This increases employee knowledge and facilitates quicker and easier delegation of tasks, which allows employees to share their workload and reduce stress levels.

The use of ICT in the workplace can also reduce stress by improving organization and time management and allowing workers to deal with private life demands during working hours.

Image Credit: Girts Ragelis/Shutterstock.com

Image Credit: Girts Ragelis/Shutterstock.com

Furthermore, the reduction in autonomy caused by increased surveillance does not always affect employees negatively. For example, Castanheira and Chambel (2010) found that if staff thought surveillance was carried out to optimize workflow rather than promote unrealistic productivity levels, their mental health was unaffected.

In addition, Rietzschel et al. (2014) found that high levels of surveillance were positively correlated to job satisfaction in people with an increased desire for structure, which highlights the need to consider individual differences when evaluating the impacts of technology use.

The future of digital working

There is likely to be a continued rise in the prevalence of digital technology within working environments in the future; currently, about 50% of jobs require employees to have digital skills, and this is predicted to rise to 75% by 2030. Therefore, evaluating the impact of technology on employee mental health is becoming increasingly important.

As digital working has the potential to impact the mental health of workers negatively, organizations must understand how they can limit these impacts and promote positive relationships with technology among employees.

To help achieve this, companies can try to reduce stress and burnout by urging employees to disconnect from their smartphones outside of working hours and enacting policies that allow flexibility in dealing with personal and work-life demands.

Other strategies that can be used to prevent technostress and improve mental wellbeing include implementing explicit email policies, which encourage employees to check emails only at fixed times, as well as making counseling sessions available to aid workers in dealing with the challenges posed by digital technologies.

However, as there is still relatively little research focusing on technostress, further study will be necessary to fully evaluate how such strategies can promote good mental health amongst workers who frequently use technology.

References

  • Dragano, N. and Lunau, T. (2020). Technostress at work and mental health: concepts and research results. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 33(4), pp.407-413. https://doi.org/10.1097/YCO.0000000000000613
  • Sun, J., Shen, H., Ibn-ul-Hassan, S., Riaz, A. and Domil, A.E. (2022). The association between digitalization and mental health: The mediating role of wellbeing at work. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 13. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2022.934357
  • Cijan, A., Jenič, L., Lamovšek, A. and Stemberger, J. (2019). How digitalization changes the workplace. Dynamic Relationships Management Journal, 8(1), pp.3-12. https://doi.org/10.17708/DRMJ.2019.v08n01a01
  • Rietzschel, E.F., Slijkhuis, M. and Van Yperen, N.W. (2014). Close monitoring as a contextual stimulator: How need for structure affects the relation between close monitoring and work outcomes. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 23(3), pp.394-404. https://doi.org/10.1080/1359432X.2012.752897
  • Castanheira, F. and Chambel, M.J. (2010). Reducing burnout in call centers through HR practices. Human Resource Management, 49(6), pp.1047-1065. https://doi.org/10.1002/hrm.20393

Further Reading

Last Updated: Dec 12, 2022

Ellie Lebeau

Written by

Ellie Lebeau

Ellie is currently in her final year of an integrated Master’s degree in Zoology at the University of Lincoln, as part of which she has studied topics such as cell biology, integrative biochemistry, veterinary parasitology, and conservation biology. Throughout her time on the course, she has been particularly intrigued by subjects relating to health and disease, and therefore, her third-year independent research project investigated the immune response to avian malaria parasites in wild birds.

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