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New types of workplace stress in the digital era

To examine the impact of automation and digital technologies on the workforce, a special report has been commissioned by the European Trade Union Institute, from a committee led by Gerad Valenduc. Among the key trends is the development of a new form of workplace stress, attached to the digital world.

Precarious work and the gig economy

Valenduc’s report, published in Hessamag, picks up some interesting trends in terms of the impact upon workers. The first relates to startups, which are noted as having an impressive capacity to adapt to existing conditions and to overcome obstacles. One of these obstacles is, however, employee rights, especially the amount of time spent on the job, the precarious nature of zero hour contracts and the risks involved, such as extended periods of driving or cycling.

Humans and machines

Intel s Project Alloy mixed reality headset

Intel’s Project Alloy mixed reality headset
Intel Corporation

A second factor is the development of high technology devices, such as augmented reality applications and robots, which can alleviate some of the physical hardship associated with certain occupations. The use of machines, however, is seen as having some impact upon the health of users such as psychosocial risks. One such issue is the need to find the right balance between a “worker’s own visual and sensory perceptions and those generated by an augmented reality system.” When this balance is out of sync, it can impact both safety and performance.

Blurring of time and geography

A third factor is geographical, altering the way through which workers carry out tasks like programming, translation, editing, offering legal services and so on. This has led to greater competition, but has also seen, in some cases, a lowering of quality where operations in one country are offering services to another for which they are not qualified. Digital nomadism also impacts upon where and when employees work.



Sander van der Wel (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The ending of geographical boundaries and blurring of work-home timeliness, through the on-line presence, also introduces a type of psychosocial problem termed “technostress”, which is a phenomenon associated with working too many hours online. Valenduc defines this as “when the potential benefits offered by the new digital services mutate into pressure being put on an employee in the form of implicit or explicit expectations of an employer or customer.”

Related to this is “information overload”, such as the constant use of emailing or instant messaging at work, which generates a constant pressure to reply to all signals received, especially where the employee feels the need to reply in order to show their presence. This can place some employees at the risk of developing mental fatigue. The ‘real-time’ nature of online work can develop into ‘unreal time’, slicing up the work-life balance. The effects upon the employee include fatigue, concentration problems, anxiety, muscle tensions and apathy.

Sometimes it is not just the bombardment of messages that triggers this modern form of stress; sometimes employees become addicted to working online, using mobile technology compulsively.


Valenduc’s analysis calls on employers to put into place measures to lessen the impact of these stresses upon employees. The report states that maintaining professional identity is important for workers, such as avoiding a worker feeling subsumed by a machine. It is also important, the report notes, for employees to maintain relationships with their colleagues. In cases of lone working, the use of bulletin boards and eclectic spaces for employees to express their feelings (negative and positive) is important.

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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