These days, office, manual labor, and customer service workers routinely are being monitored electronically by their bosses to ensure they’re productive. APA’s 2023 Work in America survey results show that slightly more than half of workers (51%) are aware that their employer uses technology to monitor them while they are working.
Further, employees who are monitored are more likely to report negative psychological outcomes than those who are not.
[Related: 5 ways to improve employee mental health]
Data show that 32% of employees who are monitored with tech during the workday by their employer report their mental health as poor or fair (as opposed to good or excellent) compared with 24% who are not monitored. Results show 45% of those monitored report their workplaces have a negative impact on their mental health compared with 29% who are not monitored.
Moreover, 28% of those who are monitored say they have experienced harm to their mental health while at work (versus 16% of those not monitored).
“Many organizations make the mistake of adopting new surveillance technologies because they don’t know how to manage remote workers,” said Tara Behrend, PhD, John Richard Butler II professor of human resources and labor relations at Michigan State University.
“It’s a mistake because the tools aren’t measuring what’s really important—all the ways a worker is contributing to the organization and generating value,” added Behrend, who also is president of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP). “Our data has clearly shown that these productivity monitoring tools do not lead to better performance. They are counterproductive for the organizations that use them.”
We asked Behrend and Leslie Hammer, PhD, emerita professor of psychology at Portland State University and codirector of the Oregon Healthy Workforce Center at the Oregon Health and Science University, to outline ways employers and employees can address the psychological impact of electronic monitoring.
The results indicate a connection between electronic monitoring and stress in the workplace. Data show 56% of workers who experience monitoring also feel tense or stressed out at work, compared with 40% of those who are not monitored. What is the psychological impact of electronic monitoring on employees and employers?
Hammer: Research clearly shows close monitoring of behavior at work is extremely stressful, limits an employees’ autonomy, and creates fears of job insecurity. Furthermore, stress and burnout are risk factors for poor mental health.
Some workers feel they are being spied on—that their employers don’t trust them, and that their privacy is being invaded. They also experience stress and anxiety. How does this affect the employee–employer relationship?
Hammer: When employees feel they are not cared for or trusted by their employers, they are likely to have lower levels of commitment to the organization and perceive lower levels of psychological safety and higher levels of stress, all negatively affecting the relationship between employees and their employers, and specifically their managers and supervisors.
Behrend: When monitoring is used as an invasive way of micromanaging, it violates the unspoken agreement of mutual respect between a worker and their employer. A person will be much less likely to go above and beyond to help the organization if that trust is broken. They basically retreat into doing the bare minimum.
Some workers who are monitored also report feeling that they do not matter at work, are not valued, and are micromanaged. Mattering at work is among the five components of a healthy workplace identified by the U.S. Surgeon General. What can employers do to ensure workers feel they matter and to help them understand why they are using the technology?
Behrend: Involving them in the design of the technology is a good first step. Asking workers what they think is a meaningful and fair way of measuring their performance makes it more likely that the metrics will be useful, and that they will be accepted by workers when deployed.
When asked what employers can do to protect their emotional and psychological well-being, some survey participants said to simply stop spying and invading their privacy. How seriously should employers take those concerns?
Hammer: Very seriously. When comparing the stress, strain, and burnout associated with electronic monitoring to the benefits, in most occupations, this is not warranted. It sends a message of distrust and creates a sense of anxiety that may in turn impact an employee’s psychological health, physical health, and job performance negatively.
There are monitoring programs that track chat room conversations to gauge the mood/state of employees and provide early warning indicators about employee mental health. Are there other psychological benefits to monitoring?
Behrend: Monitoring, when done well, can provide valuable information for training and feedback. For example, video footage of top sales performers can be used to train new salespeople. For workers who feel their efforts are not noticed or who feel uncomfortable with self-promotion, the data from monitoring could help them demonstrate their impact in a positive way. But all of that depends on a culture of respect and trust. If data from monitoring is used to punish people or justify treating them like machines, it will not have any benefit.