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Technostressed? How to avoid employee meltdown

jonathon hogg | Institute of Internal Communications | 18 september 2015

New communication channels, from WhatsApp, Snapchat and Instagram to Twitter, Facebook and instant messaging, offer organisations more ways than ever to communicate with employees. These channels create an opportunity to break out from the straightjacket of ‘send email, put up poster, hold briefing meeting’.

But this world of super-connectivity isn’t pure utopia. With most employees now depending on their phones and a range of apps to manage their customers, colleagues, family and friends during the working day, the line between work, home and play is blurring. The constant beep, ping, nudge and vibrate of electronic communication requires employees to be always ‘on’.

According to research, 58% always check their phone the instant they get an alert for an incoming text or email, and 38% of employees almost always feel anxious when they do not have their mobile phone on their person[1]. No wonder technostress is becoming a growing challenge in the modern workplace.

What is technostress?

The term was first used by clinical psychologist Craig Brod in 1984. He described technostress as “a modern disease of adaptation caused by an inability to cope with the new Computerworld technologies in a healthy manner”[2] . The term encompasses a wide range of reactions, including fear of looking silly when trying to use new apps or terminology, anxiety about contacting strangers electronically, concerns about risks from viruses and spyware, stress at having to cope with multiple tasks, and fear of being unable to meet expectations on response times.

Acknowledging technostress is important because we know that stress has a negative impact on productivity. One study found, for example, that it can cause inefficiency, a high turnover rate, absenteeism, poor work quality, increased healthcare spending and low job satisfaction[3]. The same study also showed that increasing job stress reduces employees’ commitment to the organisation.

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So how do you exploit the communication advantages of modern technology without ramping up employees’ stress levels? Following a few simple rules can help you avoid overloading staff and causing unforeseen consequences such as poor productivity and job dissatisfaction.

How to dial down the stress for employees: 

  • ask: ‘Is this message really necessary?’  Overloading employees with unnecessary messages and repeating messages on different channels can make them feel overwhelmed and out of control. It also means they have to spend more time managing messages. Streamline communications so that employees receive only the information they need and only once, on the right channel. 
  • simplify and shorten Complex messages requiring unnecessary actions, responses or acknowledgements eat into employees’ productive time and create a sense of frustration and anxiety. People fear that failing to read long messages right to the end may result in damaging consequences further down the line. Make it easy for people. Keep messages as short and simple as possible.
  • give employees space New technology enables employers to communicate with their staff anytime and anywhere, encroaching on their downtime, holidays and weekends. This is a particular temptation and challenge for global businesses where someone’s sunrise is someone else’s sunset. Avoid creating pressure by steering clear of channels that people normally deem as private and personal.
  • respect channel etiquette Communicating on the wrong channel in the wrong tone can quickly create scepticism among staff. For example, a message from the CEO on instant messaging might work once if it’s really important, affects the person who receives it and is the right length and tone. But it’s the wrong way to announce the latest business results or share price. Maintain organisational credibility and stop people switching off by using the right channel for each message and the right tone for each channel.  

Don’t forget the power of face-to-face With so much digital choice, it’s all too easy to overlook the obvious – face-to-face communication. Our experience shows that employees are crying out for genuine face-to-face communications – time to meet and connect with their managers and engage in conversation. Face-to-face communication has the advantage of being physical, verbal and visual all at the same time, so it’s easier and less stressful for people to decode the messages and take on board the real meaning. 

Realising the benefits of new communication channels without ramping up employee stress is about communicating in a way that reduces anxiety and overload. Some employees will find just the thought of digital technology stressful, so communications need to give people a greater sense of personal control. They need to be designed carefully so that people have to invest less effort to get the message.  Most importantly, organisations need to avoid looking foolish by getting it all wrong, like an uncool mum or dad – employees are pretty unforgiving.

Jonathon Hogg is a people and talent expert at PA Consulting Group

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