Taking back control: why you should deal with digital overload

Being always connected can be bad for you, your business and workers’ personal relationships – and yet employees feel expected to handle unlimited amounts of incoming information, even as the separation between work and personal lives erodes.

“Information overload occurs when the amount of input to a system exceeds its processing capacity. Decision makers have fairly limited cognitive processing capacity. Consequently, when information overload occurs, it is likely that a reduction in decision quality will occur,” warned Bertram Gross, Professor of Political Science at Hunter College, in 1964. And 50 years ago, psychologist and economist Herbert Simon predicted, “As the quantity of available information grows, the extent of available attention shrinks.”

We’re starting to see the evidence of this. AppAnnie’s 2020 State of Mobile report claims the average smartphone user spent 3.7 hours per day on their device in 2019. Most office workers receive 50-300 relevant messages a day, according to the Information Overload Research Group (IORG) – and two-thirds of smartphone users are unable to live without their devices. The rapid data flow means we are constantly distracted, and this is changing the workplace. IORG’s Nathan Zeldes observes, “We are no longer managed by objectives but by interruptions.”

Dangers of digital distraction

Today, data flows faster than humans can analyze it, and this erodes the quality of decision making. It generates stress, overwhelms employees, erodes confidence and impacts productivity. Staff can get stress-related problems. Valuable team members quit, while the stress leaks into domestic lives, undermining relationships and generating even more stress.

Flexible working can help, but it needs to be truly flexible. A Frost & Sullivan survey claims productivity can increase 34% through remote/flexible working, but warns employees feel under pressure to be always available, particularly if ancillary work commitments are not clearly defined. A 2018 Virginia Tech study suggests “flexible work boundaries” often turn into “work without boundaries,” compromising the health of employees and their families.

“The competing demands of work and non-work lives present a dilemma for employees,” says Virginia Tech’s Associate Professor of Management, William Becker, “which triggers feelings of anxiety and endangers work and personal lives.”

We all have great power. We all have great responsibility.

Digital people, physical challenges

Long working hours increase the likelihood of atrial fibrillation (heart attack) by around 40%. Evidence claims hyperconnected stress has raised depression and anxiety. Poor digital health may even accelerate employee burnout, which the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases defines as a syndrome resulting from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

“Employees today must navigate more complex boundaries between work and family than ever before,” said Becker. “Employer expectations during non-work hours appear to increase this burden, as employees feel an obligation to shift roles throughout their non-work time.”

Despite all the digital benefits, there is a pressing need to promote the human in a digital age. After all, employees won’t be productive if they are stressed out, facing relationship breakdown or other mental health challenges. Jérôme Goulard, Head of CSR, Diversity and Ethics at Orange Business Services, says its “essential to look at the culture and ongoing changes in our working practice.”

Can digital solve digital stress?

The two major mobile platforms are also working to find solutions. Both offer tools to monitor and control smartphone and app usage.

Artificial intelligence and robotic process automation (RPA) may also help, perhaps by re-routing routine queries into normal working hours and alerting people only to high-priority tasks. Tools such as Boomerang already try to identify priority emails, putting employees in better command of the incoming digital flow.

When it comes to health, apps that encourage people to stand, exercise and monitor their physical and mental condition may help.

How enterprises can help

Enterprises can adopt policies to better define and protect employee personal space. They should also ensure enterprise apps are as easy to use as any consumer alternative. The Millennial workforce expects access to the same technologies at work that they have at home and will resist solutions that make work harder – particularly if it also impacts their personal time.

That is why enterprises developing new digital workplace practices should partner with employees to ensure they choose solutions that meet employee needs, around both what they do and how they work.

Digital stress is generated by any form of digital friction, which steals even more time from workers already drowning in digital workflow. This cumulative calamity means employees take work home because enterprise systems are too unwieldy to enable them to complete tasks during work time. In the absence of effective enterprise solutions, employees turn to the use of shadow IT – and staff retention also suffers.

To protect employees, enterprise leaders should:

  • Define off-duty hours, including formal statements of when ancillary coverage may be required
  • Respect employee’s right to personal time
  • Encourage the use of email responders outside of working hours
  • Replace email with corporate social networks
  • Survey users regarding existing technologies, and remove digital friction from the workplace

Employees can also help themselves. They should protect personal time – going offline during weekends, during meals and when on vacation. Apps can be used to monitor and ration app usage. Apps for exercise, meditation and scheduling specific times of day to handle communications may help.

Orange has engaged in extensive research into how to handle hyperconnected digital overload. It recognizes both the benefits of digital and the need to protect employees and has warned of the risks of digital hyperconnectivity with its “Human Inside” campaign.

Humans need to be put at the center of digital transformation to unlock benefits for all, raising productivity while enabling more flexible working models.

Learn how Orange works to nurture responsible technology use at our “Human Inside” site.