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Sunday MBA

Addictive use of IT can hurt health

Sunday MBA provides ideas on running better businesses and succeeding in the modern workplace, this week from MIT Sloan Management Review.

Pervasive and near-continual use of organizational information technology systems is taking a toll on some employees’ health. Companies have to step in to help.

We might be entering an era in which human frailties begin to slow down progress from digital technologies. The very qualities that make IT useful — reliability, portability, user-friendliness, and fast processing — might also be undermining employee productivity, innovation, and well-being.

This downside to technology — information technology’s “dark side” — might be robbing companies of some of the very productivity gains they get from their IT investments.

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In “The Dark Side of Information Technology,” in the MIT Sloan Management Review, Monideepa Tarafdar, John D’Arcy, Ofir Turel, and Ashish Gupta write that “the more time and effort employees spend keeping abreast of ever-changing applications, struggling through information gluts, trying to understand how best to navigate through and use IT, and making mistakes, the less time they have for the job their IT tools are intended to support.”

The authors found examples where some employees actually resigned because they found it too stressful to cope with and learn to use constantly changing workflows and applications. They suggest a three-pronged approach for IT, human resources, and other executives to combat the effect of information technology’s dark side:

Senior leadership should make mindful use of IT an organizational priority. Senior leaders need to develop strategic plans related to policies for identifying and mitigating risks associated with the use of IT. Leaders also need to commit resources for campaigns such as e-mail-free weekday afternoons. They must lead by example by showing, for instance, how to limit less urgent use of IT beyond working hours.

IT leaders should build and maintain vigilance against IT’s dark side. IT leaders should drive both formal and informal learning about IT. That includes brown-bag events for people to share stories about how they use IT in positive and negative ways. It also includes building “dark-side resistant technical features” into IT infrastructure, such as blocking potentially addictive applications.

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HR leaders should monitor and enhance employees’ well-being. HR leaders should implement programs that monitor and measure whether employees experience dark-side IT-use effects. HR leaders should implement initiatives that foster positive job-related attitudes, recognizing that such attitudes can help thwart technology addiction, stress, and IT misuse. HR leaders can also encourage and provide training resources for employees to maintain work-life-technology balance.

This range of engagement by employers is similar to what organizations need to do when employees exhibit other types of addictive behaviors. The reason: For some people, technology has become too big a pull to easily resist on their own. Even as they dream of escaping from IT, many employees also confess to feeling “addicted” to some of these stress-causing technologies. For instance, “in a study of organizational mobile e-mail users, we found that 46 percent exhibited medium to high addiction-like symptoms.”

The suggestions for managers aren’t just about blocking and tackling. Managers can go beyond technology-oriented solutions and encourage employees to step back and examine their personal relationship with IT.


This article draws from “The Dark Side of Information Technology,” by Monideepa Tarafdar (Lancaster University), John D’Arcy (University of Delaware), Ofir Turel (California State University), and Ashish Gupta (University of Tennessee Chattanooga). Copyright 2014. MIT Sloan Management Review. All Rights Reserved.

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