Computerization is Impacting Workers’ Mental HealthPublished by Dennis Duitch, CPA, MBA, Advisor, Mediator

Over several decades, research studies have consistently shown that social contact results in measurably improved health and longer lives for humans. More recent studies focusing on our wired workplace have specifically examined the impacts of people communicating increasingly “on-line” to the exclusion of interpersonal contact — with results which portend increasing troubles in managing human resources. One study, conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that people spending even minimal hours weekly on the Internet evidenced higher levels of loneliness and depression.

My experience, both as relating to our firm personnel and as evidenced in numerous client companies, supports the opinions of one Harvard psychiatrist, that “people need human contact in order to…maintain their mental acuity and their emotional well-being.” His distressing contention is that “authentic psychological encounter, which can happen only when two people share the same physical space…has started to disappear from modern life and…we all may be about to discover the destructive power of its absence.”(1)

As business consultants, we see an exceptionally wide range of business activities, sizes and shapes, and seldom fail to witness organizational stagnation in some capacity stemming from this human resource factor. In medical terms, “staying on-screen, on-line…for extended periods…(with) the anonymity and monotony of technology can — and will — decrease brain stamina,” and this psychiatrist draws the behavioral conclusion that “absence of ‘the human moment’ –on an organizational scale– can wreak havoc. Eventually, an organization’s culture turns unfriendly and unforgiving. Good people leave. Those who remain are unhappy.”

FROM A WORKFLOW STANDPOINT, the principal difficulty, of course, is that computer connection –whether e-mail communication, Internet application, even voicemail– is incredibly efficient. The fact is not only that face-to-face interaction is generally the opposite, as business conversations often segue into peripheral and irrelevant matters, but that it can also be less effective. While e-mail and voicemail are often derided as the cause of miscommunication and misunderstanding in the workplace, their power for accurate, immediate, and mass communication along with tactical efficiency are unparalleled by any other medium.

FROM A MANAGEMENT STANDPOINT however, beyond concern about the psychological damage which may stem from technology replacing human contact, our consulting engagements also evidence an alarming number of business owners who express insecurities about feeling “out of control.” One C.O.O. commented recently “It may look like I’m managing my people, but reality is that the computer systems are managing me.”

Clearly, we’re witnessing the fact that, as information and communication technology have enveloped most operational processes, managerially controlling employee activity is becoming exceedingly difficult; where ‘telecommuting’ is involved, many employers are finding this nearly impossible. What we’re seeing is technology on the one hand retarding the “mental acuity and emotional well being” of workers, while on the other hand creating stress and insecurity for owners and managers.

It seems pretty evident that absence of hands-on interpersonal relationship in the workplace –epitomized by interaction with a monotone computer screen– is taking a serious and increasing toll on human resources. While periodic band-aid remedies may cushion the effects of this problem (e.g. www. stretchware.com which provides software to pop up on-screen and periodically guide the user through ‘stress easing routines’), some simple management techniques may better serve the problem: using e-mail and voicemail only as supplements to, and not substitutes for, personal interaction; focusing specific time and energies toward ‘people needs’; and infusing ‘human touch’ back into the workplace.

(1) Harvard Business Review, Jan/Feb 1999, Dr. Edward Hallowell, “The Human Moment”