I first became aware of the degree of stress prevalent among South Korean workers when I saw two men dressed in business suits strangling each other on a busy street in Seoul while the oblivious crowd rushed past. This was back at the turn of the century when Koreans were widely embracing new technology. They were working on the Internet of Things when the rest of the world was just beginning to discover ‘Things’. They already had a TV channel solely dedicated to watching guys (they were always guys) play video games. In short, they simply couldn’t get enough of technology.
So when I heard some Korean tech experts on a recent BBC broadcast talk about a tech backlash, I was understandably surprised. However, according to these experts, many in the tech industry (as well as normal Korean citizens) were nostalgically looking back to the quieter, less tech-driven days of the good ol’ 1990s. Here was the old double-edged sword of progress dividing people into beneficiaries and victims, and it seems some are being more victimized than others.
Most people, at some time or other, will experience something referred to as ‘technostress’. This is defined as a mental condition that is “a result of altered habits of work and collaboration that are being brought about due to the use of modern information technologies at office and home situations”. “People experience technostress when they cannot adapt to or cope with information technologies in a healthy manner. They feel compulsive about being connected and sharing constant updates, feel forced to respond to work-related information in real-time, and engage in almost habitual multi-tasking. They feel compelled to work faster because information flows faster, and have little time to spend on sustained thinking and creative analysis.”
Technostress puts people in a no win situation. Humans need sleep and rest. Technology never sleeps and, in so doing, makes workers feel pressured to work harder and longer. As evidence of this, 55% of American workers don’t take all of their vacation time and 61% of workers claim they don’t get enough sleep.
The reason for this increased focus on work over free time is fear. Employees fear that, if they don’t work long enough and hard enough, they could lose their jobs, and good jobs aren’t easy to find nowadays. Technology not only complicates the issue with its nonstop connectivity but with continuous upgrades and new programs that workers are forced to master even before they’ve mastered whatever previous programs were in place. Companies feel compelled to adopt new programs simply to remain competitive, fueling a frustrating work environment.
The generation that is fueling what is referred to as the ‘work martyr’ mindset is the millennial generation. In fact, nearly half of millennials believe that it is necessary to be a work martyr and they actually embrace the concept. As one survey found, “Millennials are the most likely generation to forfeit time off, even though they earn the least amount of vacation days.” Work martyrs admit that their goal is to shame their co-workers in order to gain a workplace advantage. Such an attitude may pressure other workers to adopt the work martyr creed, creating, in the process, a workplace populated by overworked, sleep-deprived, stressed, anxious, and depressed workers. But these problems pale in comparison with the stress placed on workers more deeply involved in the tech industry.
Everyone responsible for keeping up with the latest developments in technology knows that exasperating feeling that can only be compared to climbing a cliff that grows faster than you can climb it. It often comes down to just hanging on and hoping to survive. In fact, the more tech-savvy-dependent your job is, the greater is your chance of developing some serious psychological problems.
Among those most afflicted with tech-related mental disorders are tech entrepreneurs because their very livelihood depends on their having a firm grasp on the latest tech developments. Those entrepreneurs developing new technologies, apps, or programs live in a constant state of panic caused by the fear that others will come out with something better than what they are working on or will come out with a similar product before they can introduce theirs. With new entrepreneurs, the pressure to get funding and simply stay alive can lead to serious mental disorders.
One study found that nearly half of the entrepreneurs they surveyed had had some psychological problems at some point in their lives and 32% said they had two or more conditions. This may mean that creative or driven people, such as entrepreneurs, may have a predisposition to mental health problems which are simply exacerbated when they are placed in the competitive world of entrepreneurism.
The mental health problems most commonly found among entrepreneurs are depression and ADHD.
As one writer on depression in the tech industry observed,
“the same traits that push the ‘creative class’ to blaze trails mean that they burn out quicker and take perceived failures closer to heart. These traits can also put them in vulnerable positions, where their risks lead to financial straits or they hyper-focus on their business to the detriment of their health. Inadequate sleep, lack of exercise, and poor diet, all contributors to depression, can compound these highly stressful situations. In those that are prone to mental illnesses, stress can trigger an episode and the pressure and unpredictability of the tech industry certainly adds to it.”
The tech industry is one of the few in which success can lead to failure. This is because success in the tech industry can be more fleeting than in almost any other business sector. Today’s stars can be tomorrow’s forgotten majority. Once out of the tech mainstream, it is very difficult to get back in. For this reason, success does not lead to a diminution in psychological problems but may actually augment them. The stress of trying to stay in the game can be debilitating. And this stress is compounded in millennials by unrealistic expectations and ageism. Employers often falsely assume that all millennials are tech experts. This stereotype compels millennials to try to live up to this expectation because they feel that if they don’t, they may lose their jobs. In addition, the widespread ageism present throughout the tech industry means that young employees or entrepreneurs feel that their careers could be over by the time they reach 30. It should come as no surprise, then, that an Open Sourcing Mental Illness report found that 50% of those working in the tech industry have sought treatment for mental illness.
The stress and depression inherent in tech and especially among entrepreneurs has led to the creation of help sites such as Start-ups Anonymous. It should be kept in mind that 90% of all start-ups fail, so those attempting to find financial success via this route are really putting themselves in the mental illness crucible. Looking at some of the letters to this site is a good way to learn the type of mental health problems many in the tech industry are facing. Here are just a few representative examples.
“Does anyone ever feel isolated and that for all the work you’ve put in, you’ve actually done nothing because the company is still pre-revenue?” and all the while you are “frequently living on the edge of homelessness and starvation?”
“My boyfriend is a game programmer and he works maybe 70 hours per week at a startup. I never see him, we always fight, and even though he is one of the smartest people I know he insists that he is stupid and can’t complete with the other coders. I feel his mind is slowly deteriorating. He used to be happy. Now he is never able to get out of his depressed state. He has become paranoid… What has this industry done to the man I loved?.”
“I can’t even tell you how much money we lost on our first app. Not to mention the opportunity cost and the sleepless nights. When you make a conscious decision to buy a twenty lb. bag of rice and eggs as the only nutrition you need this month so you can invest the savings in a more powerful laptop, it can be depressing.”
“I remember on one occasion they asked us for our revenue report and we said $130k thus far. They just laughed in our face. How do you survive that type of public humiliation? When you put yourself out there, expose your dreams and soul and they literally just laugh in your face?”
“Solo founder 2 years into my first startup; I’ve made SO much progress, but still not a sustainable business. Lost all my friends because I can’t afford my former lifestyle. I feel incompetent, lost, and like I ruin everything. Really hate myself.”
In such a stressful environment, it is not surprising, that many overworked, stressed, and depressed tech workers may long for the simpler days of clocking out at 5PM, having weekends free of work, and taking long, carefree vacations. Korea may just be leading the way in the pursuit of more stress-free lives. As it stands now, a recent study of Korean workers found “82.8 percent of 1,485 participants saying that they experienced feeling depressed and lethargic at work.” Such a lopsided, negative work environment may be why the pendulum is beginning to swing in the other direction. Such a swing is often instigated by a reassessment of what is truly important in life. This changing attitude among Korean workers may signal the beginning of a worldwide movement against technology and the stresses that come packaged with it. However, progress does not stop simply because it may make some people feel uncomfortable. Neo-Luddites may rage against the machine, but the machine is determined to continue on its way.