Helping Older Workers Thrive: Managing the Effects of Technological Interruptions

Young male helping older female coworker work on computer
July 12 , 2022  |  By Mitchell Simpson, Varun Grover

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Communication technology has increased worker productivity in the recent decades. Those same advances, however, have also made it easier to let those work communications creep into other parts of our lives. One quick email or text or call turns into a blizzard of pings.  

And while many of us have fallen in love with the new work-from-home normal and its time saving qualities, it has only further corroded the easy distinctions between home life and work life. Layered onto this is that many of us are using our own devices for work functions, so even our devices do not have clear role distinctions. So much stress is coming from things that were supposed to make our lives easier!  

Specifically, as communications technologies make workers ever available, they allow one role in our lives to invade another. Role stress is something we have all felt at one time or another, as role stress arises from the conflict between responsibilities across different spheres of our lives. 

According to the University of Arkansas’s Varun Grover, many workers begin to shy away from what they feel is the source of their stress, and as any seasoned procrastinator can tell you, avoidance is a typical coping strategy for stress. When workers begin avoiding their stressors, they are already experiencing a decline in their productivity and their well-being. Moreover, Grover says that role stress is not distributed equally in the workplace: older workers experience this sort of technostress more acutely.  

In “Grappling with modern technology: interruptions mediated by mobile devices impact on older workers disproportionately,” Grover and coauthors Stefan Tams, Jason Thatcher, and Manju Ahuja explore the consequences of technological mediated interruptions on workers of different ages in the workforce. Between new work arrangements and the greying of the workforce, their work is increasingly relevant for work relationships between employers and their employees and between coworkers.  

If employers and coworkers understand the stress their older team members feel, then everyone can work together to ensure the workplace enables each worker to be successful. The researchers’ insights go beyond present directives for employers to accommodate the workplace for older workers, who are presumed to be less physically well because older workers do not feel less physically well or capable. On the contrary, many of them describe their health in old age very well.  

A mismatch, then, exists between the way society presently views the elderly and the way that older workers should – and want to – participate in their communities and workplaces. Grover, Tams, Thatcher, and Ahuja’s research, therefore, helps employers understand where older employees do struggle, especially in the knowledge economy, and they offer compassionate, practical advice to workplaces and older workers so they can continue to be valued community members, coworkers, and employees that they are instead of being viewed as burdens

The Relationship between Age and Technostress 

For this study, the researchers focused on two groups: younger workers (18 – 29) and so-called young-old workers (50 – 65), defined as older workers younger than traditional retirement age for the purposes of this study. Grover, Tams, Thatcher, and Ahuja wanted to ensure that there were clear distinctions between the groups of participants. In future studies, however, the researchers would like to see how their findings apply to intermediary groups of workers. 

There are aspects of older workers that do differ from younger people and that affect the way they can moderate their attention amid distractions. Specifically, as we age, we experience an inhibitory deficit in our ability to control our working memory caused by changes in our brains’ connections. Practically, this means that distractions are more likely to dislodge information from the short-term memories of older people.  

As Walton Insights has previously discussed, technological interruptions can invade every moment of our lives. And because of physical factors, such as inhibitory deficits, these interruptions hit older workers especially hard. Work induced role stress can make workers feel like they have lost control of their lives and that they are inundated with too many responsibilities. By trying to wrest control back, however, older workers’ productivity can suffer because as they pull away from technology induced stress, they also pull away from work responsibilities.

The researchers found that experience with the technologies helps mediate the stress a worker feels. Considering how quickly technology has changed during our own lives, older workers are probably using technologies that did not exist or else were very primitive when they first entered the workforce. This means that older workers again bear this stress disproportionately –since their younger counterparts did not have to transition to the newer technology, they have a head start on avoiding the new ways it can stress us out.  

How To Better Help Older Workers 

Grover, Tams, Thatcher, and Ahuja found that workers of all ages used their technologies less as their perception of the demands placed upon them by the technology’s interruptions increased. They felt more stressed in their personal lives and therefore avoided the friction that work caused by withdrawing from communication technology more frequently. And, as the researchers hypothesized, older workers are “more likely…to push back their use of technology in the first place” because of the technostress. The findings are consistent with the researchers’ expectations that the stress affected older workers more significantly.  

As noted above, the data from the study’s participant responses did suggest that experience with these technologies “dramatically” reduced the stress caused by the interruptions. These findings lead the researchers to suggest that employers ought to develop intervention and educational strategies to help their older workers take control of their well-being and maintain their productivity. It really could be as simple as making sure employees know how to adjust their devices’ settings to limit work notifications to working hours or that setting a device to airplane mode can facilitate periods of deep work

The data is consistent with the increase of inhibitory deficits we experience as we age, but Grover, Tams, Thatcher, and Ahuja suspect there are other factors at play. For example, other research has suggested that people experience reductions in memory performance when they believe they have memory problems. This reduction is caused not by internal brain structures but is rather psychosomatic, a real symptom induced by the worry these people feel about their memories.  

Our cultural narratives about older workers may make it possible that they worry more about their cognitive abilities and thereby experience those problems. But more research is needed to assess the full breath of the psychological causes of the real stress that Grover, Tams, Thatcher, and Ahuja observed in older workers. 
Even as the researchers call on employers to develop compassionate intervention strategies to enable the success of their older workers, their findings are very empowering. The study suggests there is much we can do individually to control our stress as we develop community responses. Getting to know our devices can go a long way towards ensuring we manage them and not the other way around. 
Likewise, business management research is proving something that many of us already intuitively know: our perceptions about our lives can turn into self-fulfilling prophecies. We can get ahead of those. In the meantime, have a little patience for your older coworkers and for yourself…if you’re not already experiencing them, you’ll likely have the same problems in the not-too-distant future. 

Varun GroverVarun Grover is the David D. Glass Endowed Chair and Distinguished Professor of Information Systems at the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. He has published extensively in the information systems field, with over 400 publications, 250 of which are in major refereed journals. He is consistently ranked as one of the top five researchers globally in the Information Systems field based on publications in top journals and citation impact.

Mitchell SimpsonMitchell Simpson is a doctoral student in the Department of English at the University of Arkansas. His research focuses on the Global Middle Ages and cross-cultural communication in the European Medieval and Early Modern Periods. When his nose isn't buried in a book (usually a Japanese textbook right now), he can be found hiking the Ozarks or at the gym improving his grappling. He lives with his wife, Rachel, and their small menagerie, two cats, Hildi and Winnie, and a goofy dog, Birch, in Fayetteville.