Dr. John Charlton
Psychology Research Fellow, University of Bolton

The introduction of computers into the workplace over the past three decades up to the point where in many businesses they are now ubiquitous has conferred tremendous advantages. However, research shows that there is also a downside in the form of computer-related stress. For example, a 2003 UK poll for the Symantec Corporation showed 86% of people surveyed as having experienced stressful IT-related incidents.

One major stressor is likely to be the occurrence of computer-related anger. Of the few existing studies of everyday computer anger that exist, work in the USA has shown that, as might be expected, people with less experience with computers and those lacking confidence in their ability to deal with computers tend to have greater feelings of helplessness and frustration and experience greater anger at both themselves and computers when things go wrong.

Psychological studies of the reasons why people are particularly prone to computer-related anger are limited, but our ongoing programme of research at the University of Bolton has been looking further into computer-related anger and stress. In one study we have found that people blame computers in anger inducing computing situations in the same way that other drivers are often blamed in instances of road rage, and, not surprisingly, that people report their anger to be more intense when they are under time pressure, in a negative mood, and the task that they are performing is particularly important to them.

It might be thought illogical for people to blame computers for incidents when they are inanimate objects. However, work in the USA has shown that there is a similarity between people’s expectations of humans and their expectations of computers. The theory is that because the way we communicate with computers has a lot in common with the way we communicate with other people, we react to computers as though they were people. For example, when using a word processing program we expect our words to appear on the VDU almost instantaneously, and when this does not happen we become angry both because our goal of finishing our task is being blocked and because the computer is not meeting our expectations. Similarly, the failure of a computer to respond in a timely manner to input might also be said to violate socially accepted ways of behaving. The fact that the above types of goal blocking often seem to occur for no known reason is also likely to add to anger, psychological studies showing that frustrations occurring for arbitrary reasons evoke greater hostility than those which appear more justifiable.

Work that we are currently conducting at the University of Bolton is tending to show that people with higher emotional empathy are more likely than those with lower emotional empathy to project human-like characteristics on to computers in emotion evoking situations (because they are particularly prone to dealing in emotions as a mental currency), and that they therefore blame computers more for an incident, and become more angry.

Moving away from anger, another major source of computer-related stress in the workplace can be email overload, which has been defined as people’s perceptions that they are receiving and sending more email than they can handle or process effectively. We are currently drawing-up plans to investigate how organisational factors and people’s psychological characteristics might exacerbate email-related stress. In a previous study by researchers at the universities of Paisley and Glasgow email users were categorised into three different types: those adopting a relaxed orientation to email (who don’t feel under any pressure to respond quickly to emails and don’t expect people to respond quickly to their emails either), those having a driven orientation (who respond to emails quickly and expect fast responses to their emails, but see all this in a positive light) and those having a stressed orientation (who see email as a source of stress and difficulty in their life). At Bolton we plan to test a model incorporating organisational norms and the behaviour of co-workers (both as senders and recipients) as sources of strain and to model the extent to which these effects are influenced by a person’s personality characteristics. For example, we intend to look at the extent to which the behaviour of the types of email user identified by the aforementioned Scottish research can act as a stressor to other people when there is a clash in user typologies. From the results of our research we are hoping to develop an online training course giving advice on how to alleviate email-related strain.

Given that the results of our and other researchers’ work show that, for some people at least, working with computers is likely to be a significant source of stress, often because of anger, it is important to consider how this might be alleviated. This is particularly true because habitual anger can be a cause of health problems.

Although occasionally getting slightly angry probably isn’t a major problem, people that are habitually prone to anger are at greater risk of angina and having heart attacks, because anger raises the blood pressure and causes damage to the coronary arteries. There’s also evidence that becoming angry increases levels of blood cholesterol, including the damaging type of cholesterol known as LDL cholesterol.

There used to be a view that venting anger, rather than bottling it up, was beneficial, but more recent studies have shown that it is the outward expression of anger, rather than the inward feelings of anger, that is linked to heart problems — as long as we don’t totally deny our angry feelings to ourselves. And there’s evidence that the angrier we get, for example the louder we shout, the higher our blood pressure goes.

People who find themselves becoming angry when using computers might find a number of simple strategies beneficial. Firstly, they might train themselves to realise that some of the computing situations that provoke their frustration and anger are quite trivial and that there’s no need to get angry over them. But where frustration cannot be prevented by doing this, several things can be done. One simple thing to do if a computer is taking too long to respond is simply to look away from the computer. Also, people can train themselves to stay calm when they get frustrated by taking a series of short deep breaths, or by repeatedly telling themselves (not necessarily out-loud) in a low calm voice to relax while, at the same time, relaxing their muscle tension. Another technique is to think of other things when an anger-provoking incident occurs — for example, visualising something pleasant such as a pet cat or dog.

The above said, of course, employers have a duty to try to address sources of computer-related stress among their workforce by ensuring that, for example, staff are adequately trained to use hardware and software. Also, it is important to ensure that computers or networks do not run too slowly because outdated equipment cannot handle the current throughput of activity or because hardware cannot cope with the increasingly large demands made by new software. Finally it is also important to ensure that there are good relations between end-users and IT personnel (an issue that we are also currently studying at Bolton) and that the latter rectify problems in a timely manner where this is possible.