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‘Workplace telepressure’

NIU researchers: Why preoccupation with work emails, texts could be bad for your health


Here’s a new techno-term that will likely resonate among many modern-day office employees: “workplace telepressure.”

Northern Illinois University psychology researchers, who coined the term, define it as an urge to quickly respond to emails, texts and voicemails – regardless of whatever else is happening or whether one is even “at work.”

So the dad constantly texting coworkers from the sideline of a youth soccer game, the multitasking mom firing off work emails over Saturday morning breakfast and the steadfast employee sleeping with his company-issued smartphone by his pillow – these behaviors all point to the psychological state of workplace telepressure.

This preoccupation with responding right away to message-based technologies can have a dark side, the researchers say.

“Workers who indicate they feel high levels of telepressure are more likely to report burnout, a feeling of being unfocused, health-related absenteeism and diminished sleep quality,” says NIU psychology professor Larissa Barber, lead author of a new study on workplace telepressure and its implications, published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.

“Over the past few decades, we’ve seen organizations increasingly rely on email or text messages for conducting business,” Barber says. “The main benefit is that employees have lots of flexibility about when they can work, including at home.

man sleeping with cell phone in his hand“But this flexibility can sometimes have unintended costs,” she adds. “Employees start to feel like they should be available and responsive to work requests at all times. This type of continuous connection does not allow people enough time to recover from work.”

Ultimately, high levels of telepressure can potentially negate the intended advantage of the technology.

“The technology is supposed to give you more control over when you can respond to coworkers or clients. Instead, it actually can backfire to make you feel less in control, because you feel you have this inescapable work,” Barber says.

High responsiveness to asynchronous technologies doesn’t necessarily translate into a worker who gets the job done.

“If they give in to their responsive urges, telepressured employees might unknowingly interfere with their work tasks,” says NIU psychology professor Alecia Santuzzi, the study’s co-author.

The researchers found that the biggest cause of telepressure appears to be social cues within a workplace culture. These cues might include misuse or overuse of “urgent” emails, pleas to respond immediately or apologies over delays in responding when only a few hours have passed.

“Employees may get both overt and subtle cues from their work environment that high responsiveness is both valued and expected from good employees,” Santuzzi says.

“Organizations may be able to help reduce telepressure by more explicitly encouraging unplugged time,” she adds. “Managers and workers also could ease telepressure by decreasing the quantity of messages, perhaps holding back information that can wait for future meetings or face-to-face conversations.”

The researchers further suggest that organizations develop workplace policies around the use of information and communication technology and set expectations. Examples might include specific guidelines regarding response times during the work days or during weekends, training employees on how to limit message responding and checking, or outlining blackout days or times when employees are not expected to respond.

It is likely that many American workers have experienced varying degrees of telepressure at one time or another. A 2013 study published by the American Psychological Association found that 44 percent of Americans report checking their email daily during vacation, and 54 percent do so when home sick.

man working on computer on the beachMeanwhile, a 2012 survey from the Society of Human Resource Management indicated that only about 21 percent of U.S.-based and multinational organizations report instituting formal polices regarding information and communication use outside of work hours, with 26 percent reporting informal policies.

“Managers can also reduce telepressure by role-modeling effective communication and showing respect for work recovery time,” Barber adds.

Barber and Santuzzi first coined “workplace telepressure” in a small study last year.

In their newly published research, the psychologists further define the experience as something separate from other behaviors such as workaholism or work engagement. They also developed and validated a brief measure of workplace telepressure that can be used in research and practice. Data were analyzed from two separate web-based surveys, each with more than 300 respondents.

Tom Parisi, NIU Media & Public Relations

Larissa Barber and Alecia Santuzzi
Larissa Barber and Alecia Santuzzi

Measure Your Workplace Telepressure

For the following questions, think about how you use technology to communicate with people in your workplace. Specifically think about message-based technologies that allow you to control when you respond (email, text messages, voicemail, etc.).

Please rate how much you agree or disagree with the statements. Response options range from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).

When using message-based technology for work purposes . . .

  1. It’s hard for me to focus on other things when I receive a message from someone.
  2. I can concentrate better on other tasks once I’ve responded to my messages.
  3. I can’t stop thinking about a message until I’ve responded.
  4. I feel a strong need to respond to others immediately.
  5. I have an overwhelming feeling to respond right at that moment when I receive a request from someone.
  6. It’s difficult for me to resist responding to a message right away.

If you find yourself answering 'agree' or 'strongly agree' to these items, you experience high amounts of telepressure.