From April to May 2021, a study on the STRESS-LESS project was conducted in the countries of Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, and Spain. The aim of this research was to offer new learning methods for improving the competences of employees of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in relation to working from home or using digital technologies in the workplace, and to support their implementation. The questionnaire was divided into thematic blocks of questions regarding technology use (before, during, and expected after the pandemic), stressors due to the use of information and communications technologies (ICT), stressors due to home office, individual coping behaviours, as well as health outcomes and prevention measures. A total of 182 respondents took part within the survey.
Overall, the study revealed some interesting facts regarding stress at the workplace occurring due to ICT use and home office: in all countries, it was found that the participants had only a moderate level of knowledge about digital stress. However, participants in Germany rated themselves plainly higher than participants in Spain. The same applies to managers compared to employees: on average, managers rated their knowledge on digital stress higher than employees.
Furthermore, companies across all four countries appear to generally provide a well-equipped workplace with digital technologies at work and at home. Accordingly, workers also use these technologies frequently. While the perceived overall intensity of the technology use does hardly change over time, the use of some single technologies, e.g., online communication tools, has changed due to COVID circumstances. Besides that, there is only a slight increase expected after the pandemics compared to the two other points in time (before and during the pandemics). At the same time, the number of technologies used by the participants surprisingly decreases during the pandemics. Possible explanations for this observation could be higher levels of home office and the absence of certain technologies such as stationary phones or stationary computers at home.
Concerning stressors due to ICT use, 62% of all participants reported severe stress for at least one stressor. The most important stress factors are Techno-Uncertainty (the feeling that skills have to be developed regularly due to frequent digital changes), Performance Control (the feeling of being monitored through the use of digital technologies), Techno-Overload (the feeling that workload increases due the use of digital technologies), Techno-Invasion (the feeling that boundaries between work and private life are increasingly dissolving) and Interruptions (the feeling of frequent interruptions during work). Techno-Invasion is also a major factor regarding emotional exhaustion: participants who reported a higher invasion score also said they were more emotionally exhausted. At country level, especially participants of Bulgaria stated higher digital stress. In contrast, participants in Germany reported the lowest values. A possible link could be the higher knowledge about digital stress of the German participants and that their awareness enables them to cope better with stress. In all countries, managers tend to be more stressed than employees. Severe factors were Techno-Overload and Techno-Uncertainty.
Concerning stressors due to home office, 38% of all participants reported severe stress for at least one stressor. The most commonly mentioned factors were “can't separate home working and free time” and “no time to relax”. Participants who stated higher scores in “no time to relax” also said they were more emotionally exhausted. Regarding gender-specific, women tend to be more stressed than man due to home office. At country level, the results are similar with the ones of stress due ICT use: participants of Bulgaria stated higher stress and participants in Germany reported the lowest values, as well as managers tend to be more stressed than employees in all countries. Especially “no time for private care” appears to be a major stress factor for them.
For individually overcoming stress due ICT use and home office, participants try to cope with similar strategies, i.e., no significant differences can be seen. However, the type of strategy varies. Active-functional coping (e.g., seek out for help/advice) and cognitive-functional coping (e. g. accept the situation) are used more often than dysfunctional coping (e.g., ignoring the problem).
Regarding some health and organisational outcomes of stress participants reported a slightly high general state of health as well as perceived productivity and job satisfaction. However, the reported values of emotional exhaustion were on a challenging level as well which appears to be a serious issue for employees. In this context, participants of Austria stated significantly higher emotional exhaustion than participants in Germany.
At last, the project team asked for implemented and desired prevention measures. In this context, participants reported workshops and health days as both the most existing and demanded ones. Besides that, risk assessments, counselling points and app guides have the strongest increases in future requirements. At country level, participants in Spain stated lower implementation values than the other three countries. Furthermore, preferences over the countries vary as well: participants in Spain especially demand risk assessment and internal training, German participants prefer workshops and manager trainings, Bulgarian participants liked workshops and health days, participants of Austria voted for workshops, manager trainings and health days. The overall future expectations regarding stress at work were reported ambiguously: participants in Spain are more positive and expect that stress due ICT use and home office will reduce after the pandemic. In contrast, participants in Germany are rather pessimistic.
Overall, the conducted study revealed the general importance of stress due to ICT use and within home office. Furthermore, many interesting insights within the topic were found which will provide useful knowledge during the next project steps on the journey to less stress at modern digital workplaces.