Stress and anxiety among drawbacks of digital working

10 September 2020 4 min. read

Digitalisation has been touted by some as a magic bullet, which companies can use to improve productivity simply by installing new products in a workplace. However, a new report has found digital transformations which neglect the needs of workers often end up making things worse.

The global digital transformation market size was estimated at $284 billion in 2019, and was expected to reach $336 billion in 2020. While the latter estimate may have slowed due to the coronavirus pandemic, it will not have done so by much, as the lockdown months have served to highlight the importance of digital resilience – especially in a world heavily dependent on remote work.

Beyond the immediate needs of a less public workforce, the perpetual boom of the digital transformation market has been accompanied by endless reams of research which suggest digital transformation can work as a cure-all for ailing firms of all shapes and sizes. Digital working is said to dramatically improve productivity, and the quality of output, while helping to cut out unnecessary spending. It is the business world’s equivalent of a Holy Grail. But as is the case with every other facet of life, it is still possible to have too much of a good thing – especially if digitalisation is undertaken for fear of missing out, rather than linked to business need.

Stress and anxiety among drawbacks of digital working

According to a new study by professional services firm Sigma, many British workers are now struggling to keep on top of distracting and confusing digital communication tools, causing them to miss important work emails or messages. The research suggests that the digital tools which have become more commonplace during the pandemic are often poorly implemented, and have only served to dent productivity, causing miscommunication and placing additional strain on workers already struggling with poor mental health.

Hilary Stephenson, Managing Director at Sigma UK, said, “Digital communications tools have revolutionised work processes in recent years but there are now real concerns that workers are becoming increasingly distracted and frustrated at the volume and type of communication they must contend with… Our research demonstrates that this is now beginning to have an impact on staff productivity and mental health. Clearly, the time has come for companies to review what are sometimes badly configured, and often confusing digital communication channels used within their organisations.”

Sigma found that 52% of workers used four or more digital tools in the average work day, while 6% said they used more than nine. Unfortunately, a potent combination of frustrations mean that far from making life easier, these tools are increasing the pressures respondents are under. While the most common point of annoyance for 32% of workers was that they felt simply interfacing face-to-face would be quicker than using a digital tool, a further 30% said that the tools they used either crashed or did not work properly. At the same time, a quarter said they required training to use the tools.

The drawbacks

While proponents of digital working might suggest that this is a structural failing, rather than a sign of weakness amid the hype of digital transformation, a further 22% complained that when tools did work, information could be lost in irrelevant ‘chat’ between users, while 20% also said the information was spread over too many tools to keep up with. In turn, this led to 18% of workers finding it harder to switch off, and the same number claiming tools were causing them stress and or anxiety.

Of the employees polled, the largest portion of 38% said digital programmes, products and tools say them loose up to 30 minutes of working time per day. Meanwhile, 7% said it cost them as much as two hours, and 0.4% said they lost more than two hours. To this end, Sigma determined that the average worker in a medium-large business loses 28 minutes every day on these processes, and that for a full-time member of staff, this works out at 9.3 hours per month, or 112 hours per year. The results suggest that simply deploying digital tools is only half the struggle, particularly if firms do not address cultural and skills issues in their workforce.

Stephenson concluded, “Businesses must now recognise that there are cost implications in creating confusion and stress for their workers by rolling out poorly conceived communication tools, without taking users’ real needs into consideration properly. The business that takes the time to implement user-centred digital communications channels, supported by sensible policies and guidance, will unlock benefits including higher productivity, better client relationships and happier employees. Although “digital transformation” is taking place across all business sectors, there is still much to learn when it comes to getting the basics right.”