Too much of a good thing

Canadian workers are enslaved by e-mail and suffering physical and mental disorders because of it, a Canadian report concludes.

The stockpiling of information, lack of job control and the need to keep pace with information technology are causing workplace stress, presenting a “clear and present danger” to the lives of workers in the form of depression and heart disease, according to a report which summarizes the findings of the first Canadian World Mental Health Day in 1998.

“There’s just so much sheer volume on one hand and mind-spinning diversity on the other. Data and voice electronic means are the vehicle through which this information is piling up, and it’s the piling-up factor that is probably the most wearing and most telling factor of all,” said Bill Wilkerson, president of the Canadian Business and Economic Roundtable and co-director of the Guelph, Ont.-based Homewood Centre for Organizational Health at Riverslea. The two organizations released the report in concert with the Canadian Mayors’ National Initiative on Mental Health.

The inability to cope with such vast amounts of information translates into lack of control in one’s own job and a greater risk of illness, Wilkerson said.

“Persons who do not have control of their day to day, hour by hour lives at work are people who show the greatest vulnerability to stress related disorders and serious mental disabilities,” Wilkerson said.

The consequences of this are outlined in Wilkerson’s co-authored book: Mental Health: the Ultimate Productivity Weapon. In it, the report finds that heart disease and depression are projected to become the leading sources of productive work-years lost around the world. It is estimated that depression costs Canadian and U.S. businesses around $60 billion each year in productivity losses, disability costs, wage replacements and product and service quality issues.

The problem, Wilkerson said, is not the technology itself but rather the management of it. “Technology is certainly not the villain, it is neutral. It is behaviour (that’s problematic). Most places have no protocols around which electronic mail should be used, for example.”

The issue, Wilkerson said, is that technology makes it possible to access work-related material at any time. However, according to Mark Guibert, marketing manager at Waterloo, Ont.-based Research in Motion (RIM), products like his company’s new Blackberry wireless handheld e-mail device will help alleviate stress.

“Talk to people who get more than 20 messages a day and ask if they can relate to the concept of coming back to their office after a day away from the office or even worse, several days away travelling, and dealing with their inboxes. With Blackberry, all the messages that you get on your PC via e-mail are relayed to you instantly and so you can actually stay on top of your e-mail throughout the day.”

What this means, Guibert said, is that “you’re not struggling with the overloaded inbox at the end of the day or the end of the week. You’re able to respond to urgent messages right away.”

But, according to Wilkerson, this immediacy contributes to the “infoglut” people face. “I think the information technology computer-based world is showing us that time is less and less an issue. We don’t even have any concept of time left — we are feeling the compression and invasion upon our space,” he said.

However, technology like RIM’s Blackberry actually helps alleviate some of the pressure on the connected individual, Guibert said. Not only does it allow users to choose what messages they would like to receive through preset filters, it can make good use of down time so that messages are not accumulating unchecked at an unattended office.

“While you’re waiting in line at a car rental or at a hotel or an airport…you can get two or three messages in that period of time, but if you were to wait until the end of the day, you would need a half hour or an hour’s worth of investment to go through all that e-mail and respond,” Guibert said.

Although people are continually seeking “places they can go to even breathe to get away from the mountain of information they’re trying to deal with,” Wilkerson said, the solution does not mean avoiding technology completely.

“My advice is use that device, absolutely use it to do all those things with, but use it with the same level of common-sense that you use your car. Because we have a car we don’t stop walking places,” Wilkerson said, adding that this means sometimes simply turning the technology off.

He admits, though, that this is not always possible and so organizations must adopt protocols on how often technology should be used. “For example, I think e-mail should be as much off limits after five or six in the afternoon, or during the night or at six o’clock in the morning, as the person’s own physical office space would be,” Wilkerson said.

“Executives have got to become aware of their own stress load — they won’t be aware of others unless they’re aware of their own. Today’s executive has to have a new value system and reward him or herself for being smart and having a balanced life,” he said.