Reliable or available? Employees need to know the difference to avoid ‘telepressure’

digital stress telepressure workplace

Digital tools bring many benefits, experts agree, but can also leave employees and employers feeling the “telepressure.”

Jillian Moores at Ottawa’s QUO HR Consulting says while “digital stress” has long been a concern, it was exacerbated by the pandemic. 

“The information overload, the constant distraction — how many times have you been researching something on one open tab, writing an email, answering a text, and responding to a Messenger question … all at the same time? And the fact that employees are relentlessly accessible … all contributes to digital stress that people and employees don’t even recognize they are dealing with.”

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Until recently, it has been relatively easy for companies to allow their organizational behaviour, psychology and structure to form “somewhat organically,” Moores says. Stress management was often left for individuals to “handle,” she adds, largely because the traditional work week ended at 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.

“Today, the workday doesn’t stop at 5 p.m. This sentiment has become widespread since the pandemic and, consequently, the significant increase in hybrid and remote work arrangements.

“Access to technology such as work emails, social media tools such as Slack or Teams Messenger, company-provided phones or allowances for phones — which somehow allows those after-hours work texts to be deemed appropriate — have all contributed to digital stress.”

Digital stress is usually caused by negative interactions with technologies such as emails, texts, social media and smartphones, Moores says, and often employees might not even realize the impact. 

The immediacy of online work has resulted in an “urgent desire” to respond to emails and chats as soon as possible, even after work hours, blurring the lines between work and home and causing health and wellness problems, argues Julie M. Potvin, partner and SME national leader in Canada for mid-market healthcare consulting at Mercer.

“It’s a really fine line between your work and your personal life and you have to set boundaries. Being reliable is not the same as being available,” says Potvin. “Being reliable is getting back to people in a timely manner, but it isn’t instantaneous … it’s not the same as being available 24/7, that’s the telepressure.”

Potvin says digital stress has been linked to insomnia, anxiety, burnout and weight gain. 

Managers are not immune to the “telepressure” and are likely experiencing digital stress alongside their teams, whether they’re sending emails at midnight or monitoring progress over the weekend. So it’s in an employer’s best interest to prioritize a “positive, supporting and minimally stressful” workplace, Moores says. 

“The less stress employees are dealing with, the more productive and engaged they will, or can, be. And policies can be a great place to start.

“Organizations create policies about how to dress at work, where to smoke, how to request vacation … What policies of today often lack is the progressive expectations and structure of the usage of digital tools.”

How and when digital tools should be used, how often they should be used, how long they should be used for, and creating expectations of when the tools should be “shut off” are all important places to start, Moores says.

“Remember, most employees want to understand what is expected of them and they want it to be clear so that everyone is working under the same assumptions,” she adds. “If one employee on a team stays up until midnight sending emails, you can be sure that this is having a trickle effect on other members of the team.”

Ensuring that employees take breaks and socialize are also ways to reduce stress and monitor the telepressure, she suggests. 

With the pandemic came “a very grey line” of where work starts and ends, says Moores. Now the onus lies on leaders “to review their policies, practices and processes at a macro- and micro-level to provide better structure and expectations for managing digital stress.”

And while employees might appreciate digital tools and the flexibility and efficiencies they bring, Potvin says it’s vital to step away, unplug after work hours, and create habits to reduce telepressure. Creating tech-free areas of the home, avoiding screens before bedtime, taking a walk after work, and even changing clothes or listening to a specific song are ways to “trigger” the brain to recognize that work is over for the day, Potvin adds.

“Everyone forgets about the right to disconnect,” she says. “It’s about remembering to transition between work and home. It’s okay to take real time for yourself and it’s okay to reorganize priorities.

“Employers have to recognize the pressure, it’s real, and give employees the time and permission to set those boundaries.”

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