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Techno stress and the risk management aspects of working from home

We take a look at techno stress as an effect of the COVID pandemic due to the accelerated digitalisation of the lives of many people.

Techno stress is stress caused by an inability to cope with new technologies, particularly computers, in a healthy manner, the stress produced varying from inability to concentrate, irritability and a feeling of loss of control up to and including psychiatric injury.

In our experience, a sizable proportion of the workforce do not react well to change, including being asked to do the job they have done for some years in a different way.

One of the effects of the COVID pandemic (besides the obvious fear of contracting the disease itself) has been to accelerate the digitalisation of the lives of many people. People have had to work from home and for some that has produced the unwelcome development of a stress-related illness.

The current Health and Safety Executive statistics for stress published in November of 2020 show that 51% of all work-related ill-health absence is due to work-related stress. It also accounts for 17.9 million working days lost. These figures being mostly based upon pre-COVID data. COVID is unlikely to lead to a reduction in these figures we would suggest. 

So whilst not ignoring the benefits many take from working from home, for a significant number of employees it will produce under-performance, illness, absence and for a potentially significant number, a claim for compensation. 

There is no magic wand, ‘one size fits all’ policy that prevents stress occurring, but a combination of properly-implemented procedures and good old-fashioned human touch is the best way to avoid it or minimise its impact. 

You should clearly have a Home Working Policy and Risk Assessments relating to home-working which employees have seen and you can prove that they have. 

It is not all about documents and the provision of an appropriate work chair or assessment of the home-working station, albeit this must be done. 

There needs to be leadership from the top with senior management talking about mental health and its importance. Managers need to be trained to recognise and respond to mental health issues. Much harder when contact is by telephone or zoom. More than ever, one to one meetings have to be done. You cannot ask an employee if they are stressed in a group zoom. 

Remember that your managers are employees too. It is stressful looking after the needs of a remote workforce.

Employees need to be trained in the use of technology but also on time management and boundaries. Meetings need to be to the point, emails should not be being sent outside agreed work hours and breaks are breaks, not opportunities for more meetings. 

For some, mindfulness works; for others, reminders of help such as counselling/advice lines are more beneficial. 

To me, one of the most important actions to take relates to the small things in life – say thank you, say well done. Don’t underestimate the importance of a few positive words. 

Also remember your stars/dependables/high fliers. They also need their one to one time to ensure they remain so and do not develop stress. 

As lawyers, we love documents. So please document your interactions and keep them. Remember to include the good as well as the bad: “Are you okay?” – “Yes”.  This is just as recordable as when you get a “No”.

So, back to the start and techno stress. Just a new label from a load of lawyers? Well, no actually. The Lords COVID-19 Select Committee launched an enquiry in October of 2020 into the impact of digitalisation and it is currently still collecting evidence with a view to reporting after the evidence-collecting process has finished in February 2021.