Why New Technology Is So Stressful at Work—and What to Do About It
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Why New Technology Is So Stressful at Work—and What to Do About It

Anxiety over technological change is escalating, especially thanks to AI. Researchers and therapists offer all sorts of ways to deal with it.

By SEAN CAPTAIN
Mon, Sep 11, 2023 10:13amGrey Clock 7 min

When Ben Plomion took his latest job, he learned quickly that his tech skills were behind the times.

At 46, he’s a decade or two older than most of his co-workers—and he’s used to an earlier generation of software. While he was accustomed to presentation programs like PowerPoint or Google Slides, for instance, his young colleagues were working with an app called Canva.

“I went in all reluctantly, because I had to relearn everything I’d learned for the last 10 years,” he says.

Plomion—chief marketing officer for a Los Angeles startup that works with crypto technology—is no Luddite. But he sometimes felt overwhelmed by the pace of change. Then came ChatGPT, and thousands of other artificial-intelligence apps. “Where do you start? What tool do you pick? And you’re almost frozen by uncertainty and doubt and indecision,” he says.

Anxiety over technological change on the job has long plagued workplaces—perhaps never more so than today, as AI potentially threatens to upend everything. The questions are familiar ones: Will people be able to keep their skills up-to-date? How will their jobs change as tech advances? Perhaps most stressful of all: Will new technology replace them? All of the uncertainty and stress can foster frustration, insecurity or self-blame that can affect their work and personal lives, and even their health.

Fortunately, researchers have studied this phenomenon for decades, gleaning insights into the deep psychological roots of these fears, how they affect people’s response to technology—and how both workers and companies can mitigate the stress.

To get an idea of just how high tech-induced anxiety is, consider PwC’s 2022 Global Workforce Hopes and Fears Survey, conducted before the widespread popularity of generative AI tech like ChatGPT. The report found that 30% of over 50,000 workers were concerned about technology replacing their role within three years, and 39% said they weren’t getting enough tech training at work.

In this year’s survey (released in June), 35% had some negative concerns about AI, such as fears that the technology will take their job, affect their role or require skills they might not be able to learn. They aren’t imagining the possible turmoil. A March global study by Goldman Sachs estimated that generative AI “could expose the equivalent of 300 [million] full-time jobs to automation,” although the report says that most jobs in the U.S. would be altered by AI, but not be replaced.

 

Workers who are worried about AI are more likely to report feeling tense or stressed at work, a new survey from the American Psychological Association found. “It can cause a person to be almost in a fight or flight state, where then every perceived threat to their job carries this heightened sense of urgency and concern,” says Dennis Stolle, one of the lead authors.

Lessons from psychology

The roots of the fear can go back to primal feelings—an instinctive, evolutionary apprehension of anything novel, says Ofir Turel, a professor of information systems at the University of Melbourne. “Our ancestors were threatened by new species…new animals, new tribes moving to their territories,” he says.

New technologies can cause insecurity, even from something as minor as disrupting people’s routines. “Our brains are designed to maintain the status quo,” says Nicole Lipkin, a clinical and organisational psychologist in Philadelphia. “We’re designed to get from A to Z as efficiently as possible. And that means keeping things the same.”

Sophia Xepoleas, a tech PR strategist in Oakland, recalls her reluctance to take time out to learn the project-management application Asana. “It is…a new pathway in your brain that you’re training,” she says. “And the ones that are already working are working real hard.”

But the sense of threat from technology can go even deeper, by menacing people’s personal identity, says Varun Grover, a professor of information technology at the University of Arkansas.

One aspect of that identity is people’s sense of professional competence, and hard-to-learn technology can threaten that. New tech can also threaten people’s sense of identity in the professional role they fill, he says, if it changes their job duties or workplace power dynamics.

Turel found this happening with the introduction of electronic medical records to a Midwestern hospital in a 2020 study. “They threatened physicians and nurses,” he says. “They were the people who actually control the information. Now you have to spend time to go through 10 screens when you prescribe something.”

This resulted in what researchers called “unfaithful use” of the new tech. Medical personnel would skip over screens or enter random information just to get through the forms. Turel and other work-stress researchers have another term for this reaction: sabotage.

The latest artificial intelligence takes this identity threat much further, says Grover, because it promises to do the higher-level reasoning that people think of as uniquely human.

Running away

To be sure, rarely does tech stress reach a clinical level of anxiety or depression. Even so, it can lead to unhealthy behaviour.

For instance, a natural response to stress is to run away from the threatening technology. “When there’s lots of uncertainty, then it’s a little bit difficult to cope,” says Mindy Shoss, professor of industrial/organisational psychology at the University of Central Florida. “And people tend to do what we call emotion-focused coping strategies, which include things like avoidance,” she says.

In tech, this could mean refusing to learn or use a new piece of software and trying to continue with the older application you are used to.

To help work through this anxiety, say researchers, people can use tools from psychological practices such as cognitive behavioural therapy, which can help people challenge negative thought patterns.

For instance, when people face new, difficult technology, it “can be a huge trigger for negative self-talk,” a sense that we lack ability or aren’t trying hard enough, says Vaile Wright, senior director for healthcare innovation at the American Psychological Association.

Instead, people can start with understanding why they find the new technology upsetting and re-evaluating the sense of risk and threat.

Workers can also reframe a technology challenge in such a way to realise the situation isn’t so bad (for instance, you won’t get fired if you don’t master this new tech). Other times, it helps them accept genuine misfortune (you will lose your job) and strategise how to move on.

It can also help for workers to give themselves some credit for facing challenges.

“It could be a thought like, ‘It’s not that surprising that this is hard. I didn’t go to school for this. But I’ve overcome hard things before,’ ” says Wright.

These tools work best in a therapeutic setting, but they are also available in self-help workbooks, says Wright. She suggests, for instance, checking out “The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook” or recommendations from the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies.

Resisting or embracing

Another danger is what psychologists call catastrophising. “Examples of cognitive distortions are [saying,] ‘If I don’t learn this within a week, I’m going to get fired.’ That’s catastrophising or all-or-none thinking,” says Lipkin.

Reframing is one way Xepoleas reduces the all-or-nothing pressure surrounding tech: She doesn’t need to master every new piece of technology to get benefits from it. Plomion, meanwhile, reduces stress by telling himself he’s doing everything he needs to do to get his job done. “I am never going to be a ChatGPT expert,” he says. “There’s a lot of people who can do that. But at a minimum…I know how to use the tools.”

The two have also tried reframing new tech as an opportunity. Xepoleas admits that, after fighting the Asana app, she ultimately found it helpful. “I’ll usually take the initiative on myself,” she says, “especially if it’s something that’s important for me to learn, or if I don’t learn it, I’m going to miss out on something strategic or important.”

People can also benefit from distraction—a cognitive behavioural technique for breaking the cycle of anxious thoughts. Xepoleas enjoys visiting a park and listening to classical music, as a respite during or after the workday. Plomion goes surfing most mornings. “When I get back from the ocean and go straight to the office after that, I’m a lot more relaxed,” he says. “I’m also a lot more eager to go back to my AI tools and learn them.”

Plomion is also an ardent skateboarder and considers mastering new tricks as akin to figuring out technology. This is known as “building mastery” in dialectical behavioural therapy, a cousin of cognitive behavioural therapy, says Wright. Achievements in one activity build confidence for taking on other challenges.

It might seem daunting to be constructively positive about new tech—but it is certainly possible. While about a third of the PwC survey respondents expressed fear over new tech, about half expected positive scenarios, such as AI making them more productive or creating new job opportunities. (The Goldman Sachs AI report, meanwhile, anticipates a boost to the global economy and sees AI taking a complementary role in many jobs, not replacing people.)

Reframing disappointment

Reframing is also crucial when the worst is true. While people often exaggerate threats, they are not always wrong. They might lose their jobs because of technology, after all. And even if they keep them, technology may change their roles in ways they don’t like—fears that are accelerating because of AI.

It can be healthy to acknowledge feelings of loss—for a time. That is the thrust of acceptance and commitment therapy, or ACT. Instead of trying to debunk the problem underlying their anxiety, “ACT therapy would have a person accept the experience,” says David Blustein, a professor of counselling psychology at Boston College.

A related concept, from dialectical behavioural therapy, is radical acceptance. People don’t have to approve of a situation that causes grief and pain, but fighting reality instead of accepting it leads to more grief and pain. “Sometimes I just have to give in, and I have to say, OK, this is going to be a part of my life now,” says Grover. “So how do I reconceptualise my role identity with this technology in my life?”

How employers can help

During times of anxiety, companies can foster a sense of agency among employees by bringing them early into the conversation about new technologies—finding out what they need and if the tools on offer will do the trick.

It is all right if these conversations include some complaining, says Lipkin, the Philadelphia psychologist. “When I hear you gripe, I’m getting what you’re afraid of,” she says. But raising concerns is only the beginning of the process. Employees should be encouraged to spend most of the discussion finding solutions to the problems, she says.

Workers can also help each other cope with disruptive tech by discussing their frustrations, says Shoss, as it provides validation of their feelings, reassurance and a sense of camaraderie. On a practical level, co-workers can help each other figure out new technologies. “Most younger people, at least in my company, and probably many others, are very willing to share their expertise in a specific tool,” says Plomion.

That’s no substitute for formal employee training, though, because employers should articulate an overall plan for how the technology is meant to be used. Employers also have to recognise different types of learning that work for each employee, says Wright, and provide multiple options, such as written tutorials, videos and one-on-one sessions.

“Employers really need to prioritise their employees’ mental health,” she says. “We know that when our mental health and our emotional well-being [are] more stable, we’re actually better employees. We’re more committed to the organisation.”



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Cocoa and Coffee Prices Have Surged. Climate Change Will Only Take Them Higher.

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Cultivating cocoa and coffee requires very specific temperature, water and soil conditions. Now, more frequent heat waves, heavy rainfalls and droughts are damaging harvests and crippling supplies amid ever growing demand from customers worldwide.

“Adverse weather conditions, mostly in the Southern Hemisphere, have played an important role in sending several food commodities sharply higher,” said Ole Hansen , head of commodity strategy at Saxo Bank.

The spikes in prices are a threat to coffee and chocolate makers across the globe.

Swiss consumer-goods giant Nestlé was able to pass only a fraction of the cocoa price increase to customers last year, and it may need to adjust pricing in the future due to persistently high prices, a spokesperson said.

Italian coffee maker Lavazza reported revenue of more than $3 billion for last year, but said profitability was hit by soaring coffee bean prices, particularly for green and Robusta coffee, and its decision to limit price increases.

Likewise, chocolatier Chocoladefabriken Lindt & Spruengli said in its 2023 results that weather and climate conditions played a major role in the global shortage of cocoa beans that led to historically high prices. The company had to lift the sales prices of its products and said it would need to further raise them this year and next if cocoa prices remain at current levels.

Hershey ’s chief executive, Michele Buck , said in February that historic cocoa prices are expected to limit earnings growth this year, and that the company plans to use “every tool in its toolbox,” including price hikes, to manage the impact on business.

In West Africa, where about 70% of global cocoa is produced, powerhouses Ivory Coast and Ghana are facing catastrophic harvests this season as El Niño—the pattern of above-average sea surface temperatures—led to unseasonal heavy rainfalls followed by strong heat waves.

Extreme heat has weakened cocoa trees already damaged from heavy rainfall at the end of last year, according to Morningstar DBRS’s Aarti Magan and Moritz Steinbauer. The rain also worsened road conditions, disrupting cocoa bean deliveries to export ports.

The International Cocoa Organization—a global body composed of cocoa producing and consuming member countries—said in its latest monthly report that it expects the global supply deficit to widen to 374,000 metric tons in the 2023-24 season, from 74,000 tons last season. Global cocoa supply is anticipated to decline by almost 11% to 4.449 million tons when compared with 2022-23.

“Significant declines in production are expected from the top producing countries as they are envisaged to feel the detrimental effect of unfavorable weather conditions and diseases,” the organization said.

While the effects of climate change are severe, other serious structural issues are also hitting West African cocoa production in the short- to medium-term. Illegal mining poses a significant threat to cocoa farms in Ghana, destroying arable land and poisoning water supplies, and the problem is becoming increasingly relevant in the Ivory Coast, according to BMI.

The issues are being magnified by deforestation carried out to increase cocoa production. Since 1950, Ivory Coast has lost around 90% of its forests, while Ghana has lost around 65% over the same period. This has driven farmers to areas less suited to cocoa cultivation like grasslands, increasing the amount of labor required and bringing further downside risks to the harvest, the research firm said.

The Ivory Coast’s cocoa mid-crop harvest—which officially starts in April and runs until September—is expected to fall to 400,000-500,000 tons from 600,000-620,000 tons last year, with weather expected to play a crucial role in shaping the market balance for the season, ING analysts said, citing estimates from the country’s cocoa regulator. Ghana’s cocoa board also forecasts a slump in the harvest for this season to as low as 422,500 tons, the poorest in more than 20 years, according to BMI.

Neither regulator responded to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, extreme droughts in Southeast Asia—particularly in Vietnam and Indonesia—are resulting in lower coffee bean harvests, hurting producers’ output and global exports. Coffee inventories have recovered somewhat in recent weeks but remain low in recent historical terms. Robusta coffee has seen a severe deterioration in export expectations, while Arabica coffee is expected to return to a relatively narrow surplus this year, said Charles Hart, senior commodities analyst at BMI.

The global coffee benchmark prices, London Robusta futures, are up by 15% on-month to $3,825 a ton. Arabica coffee prices have also surged 17% over the last month to $2.16 a pound in lockstep with Robusta—its highest level since October 2022. Cocoa prices have more than tripled on-year over these supply crunch fears, and risen 49% in the last month alone to $10,050 a ton.

“Cocoa trees are particularly sensitive to weather and require very specific conditions to grow, this means that cocoa prices are especially vulnerable to extreme weather events, such as drought and periods of intense heat, as well as the longer-term impact of climate change,” said Lucrezia Cogliati, associate commodities analyst at BMI.

Cogliati said global cocoa consumption is expected to outpace production for the third consecutive season, with intense seasonal West African winds and plant diseases contributing to significant declines.

Consumers hoping for a return to cheaper prices for life’s little luxuries in the midterm may also be in for a bitter surprise.

“There is no sugarcoating it—consumers will ultimately be faced with higher chocolate prices, products that contain less chocolate, and/or shrinking product sizes,” Morningstar’s Magan and Steinbauer said in a report.

“We anticipate consumers could respond by searching widely for promotional discounts, trading down to value-based chocolate and confectionary products from premium products, switching to private-label from branded products and/or reducing volumes altogether.”

The record-breaking rally for cocoa and coffee is likely more than just a flash in the pan, according to Citi analysts, as adverse weather conditions and strong demand trends are likely to support prices in the months ahead. The U.S. bank estimates Arabica coffee futures in a range of $1.88-$2.15 a pound for the current year, but said projections could be lifted if the outlook for 2024-25 tightens further.

At the heart of it all, climate change is set to play a major role, as the impact of extreme weather events could exacerbate the pressure on cocoa and coffee supplies, according to market watchers.

“I don’t expect prices to remain at these levels, but if we continue to see more unusual weather as a result of global warming then we certainly could see more volatility in terms of cocoa yields going forward, which could impact pricing,” said Paul Joules, commodities analyst at Rabobank.

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