"The stress of being monitored is killing me!"

Mental Health

Physical Health


Mental Well-Being

Working under pressure produces stress in workers. Electronic monitoring exerts pressure to perform, which makes working under such conditions wearing on employee mental health.

How Does Monitoring Cause Worker Stress?
According to Congress's Office of Technology Assessment, "Service observation, when done without notice or warning, can contribute to a feeling of being spied upon" (13:5). When workers begin to feel that their employer does not trust them, their mental well-being is harmfully impacted.

Monitoring often occurs in already stressful work circumstances, and the combination of surveillance with other stressors can push workers beyond reasonable tolerance levels. According to the Worklife Report,

"Not only does electronic monitoring have the "potential" to adversely influence working conditions which have been shown to cause stress, it may actually create these adverse working conditions, such as paced work, lack of involvement, reduced task variety and clarity, reduced peer social support, reduced supervisory support, fear of job loss, routinized work activities and lack of control over tasks." (12:4-5)

Monitoring presents an "assault on personal dignity" (12:8), and decreases worker autonomy by requiring regimented compliance to monitored standards. These factors make working under surveillance a subtle source of worry for workers.

Research Shows Monitoring Increases Stress
The OTA found that "There is reason to believe that electronically monitoring the quantity or speed of work contributes to stress and stress-related illness" (13) The exact impacts of monitoring on stress levels are uncertain because little research has been done on "separating the effects of monitoring from job design, equipment design, lighting, machine pacing, and other potentially stressful aspects of computer-based office work." (13)

A study by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health compared a group of heavily monitored clerical workers with a control group which was not monitored and found that the former group experienced a greater degree of stress than the later.(7)

Circumstantial Evidence Shows Monitoring Increases Stress
At AT&T, where computer monitoring is used extensively, "at least 25% of the workforce is involved in job counseling for work-related emotional disorders."(11)

According to Shoshana Zuboff, a Harvard University professor, writing in the Harvard Business Review, turnover climbed to almost 100 percent after "a large retail chain" implemented automated monitoring of its collections staff." (7)

9to5 reported on the experience of a telephone service worker who suffered a nervous breakdown which she blamed on "bathroom break harassment". In this cases, a worker's stress became unbearable when the worker was not able to take needed bathroom breaks because she feared termination due to noncompliance with strict regulations on the allotment of worker time:

"At United Airlines, flight reservationists are permitted 12 minutes for bathroom breaks during a 7.5 hour period. Any amount over that is grounds for a disciplinary warning. One worker spent 13 minutes over her allotted time and was threatened with firing. 'She [the supervisor], told me that while I was in the bathroom my co-workers were taking extra calls to make up for my 'abusive' work habits.' "(11:7)

When Gary Cwitco of Communications Workers of Canada surveyed 700 Bell Canada operators he found that two-thirds regarded their monitored jobs as very stressful or moderately stressful. He was told by 70% of the workers that the "perceived preference for speed over quality of service created psychological distress."(4)

Evidence, both anecdotal and scientific, points to monitoring as a serious source of on-the-job stress. In the words of Steven Miller, monitored workers "feel like the captives in Benthan's panopticon prison. The pressure can be unending and nerve-racking." (10:286) Monitoring places a mental weight on monitored workers and damages their psychological well-being.

Physical Well-Being

As on the job stress increases, the physical as well as mental health of workers suffers. Physical health may be impacted as a consequence of stress, or due to other factors related to mononitoring. According to both the OTA and 9to5, monitoring can lead to work speedups.

Stress itself may cause physical ailments. A data entry clerk told her story of deteriorating health to 9to5, "We were told last week that we failed to meet management productivity goals... I feel so depressed my stomach is in knots, I take tons of aspirin, my jaws are sore from clenching my teeth, I'm so tired I can't get up in the morning, and my arm hurts from entering, entering, entering." (11)

Monitoring gives employers increased control of employee work rates. Just as in factories where workers can be held accountable for the number of widgets they produce, monitoring can allow office managers to enforce production rates among their employees. Instead of widgets, these rates may be set in terms of lines of words typed in a secretarial situation or in records entered for at a data entry job. Just as in a factory, when work rates are set extremely high, workers' bodies suffer in trying to achieve these rates. Repetitive motions are damaging to joints and tendons, and may cause workers to develop carpal tunnel syndrome or other injuries. Back pain and muscle pains can result if speed is increased beyond tolerance.

The following chart compares health complaints among monitored workers with unmonitored employees. Both groups work as service representatives. (8)
Somatic complaints MonitoredUnmonitored
Loss of feeling in fingers/wrists 3623
Stiff or sore wrists 3919
Pain or stiffness in shoulders 7271
Shoulder soreness72 61
Pain or stiffness in arms/legs 6455
Neck pain into shoulder/arm/hand 5844
Neck pressure80 66
Back pain74 77
Racing or pounding heart 5842
Acid indigestion67 56
Stomach pains50 48
Headaches90 94
Depression78 67
Severe fatigue or exhaustion 7966
Extreme anxiety68 57
High tension84 76


Monitoring impacts both the moral of project teams and the esprit de corps of entire corporations. It creates individual goals which discourage workers from working towards team goals and helping their co-workers to achieve these goals. Companies in Japan and the US using group evaluations rather than individual monitoring find that this is an effective method of motivating individuals towards group goals and encouraging teamwork.

Individual Incentives Get in the Way of Teamwork
When workers are monitored on an individual basis they are given individual goals. Using data gathered through monitoring to drive employees to achieve these individual goals rather than team goals destroys the spirit of community among workers. Such a spirit would otherwise impel them to assist each other in their tasks and encourage behavior which furthered common as well as individual goals. Some companies publicly post performance information on individuals; for instance, the average time spent answering a service call might be listed for customer service agents. Such uses of data obtained through monitoring encourages competition among workers rather than team efforts to achieve common goals such as customer satisfaction.

The damage intense monitoring does to workplace moral became clear to several US companies who attempted to cut costs by using monitoring to keep work rates high. According to OTA, Federal Express, Bell Canada, USAA, and Northwest Airlines found that "...too much speed spoils service." (1)

In 1984, Fed Ex became worried that UPS's move into overnight deliveries would cut their business, so management decided it could save money by reducing by one second the average time its 2,500 customer-service agents spent on each call. Fed Ex made keeping calls under 140 seconds 50% of an agent's performance review. This backfired; not only did employees stress increase but agents began to cut off customers before all their questions were answered in order to meet the time quota. Individual time goals began to supersede group goals of quality, and moral suffered.

After realizing its mistake Fed Ex implemented a new system in which a supervisor listens in on a random call twice a year, and evaluates the worker on the quality of his customer assistance. Moral increased and the time per call dropped to 135 s. (1)

Peer Pressure Preserves Team Spirit and Achieves Ends of Monitoring
According to a study by the OTA, electronic monitoring of individuals is not used in Japan because it goes against Japan's tradition of teamwork. Japan became extremely competitive over the past half century by using peer pressure rather than individual monitoring as a means of encouraging good work. Instead of individual statistics, teams and management feelback about progress towards progress goals presure workers to do their best. One Japanese executive told the OTA that introducing computer monitoring "...would offend both managers and workers." (13:10)

In 1989, Bell Canada implemented group monitoring of call management among its agents. Instead of abandoning monitoring, Bell Canada used it on a larger scale in order to preempt any need for individual competitiveness and encourage team efforts. Carol M. Stephenson, Bell Canada's head of operator services in Ontario told the OTA that now, "if we see a problem with the group average [of 23 s / call], we ask employees if they know the cause and work with them to get it back down," This use of group pressure increases the team orientation of workers; it was so successful that 70% of 2,400 operators told the OTA that service improved, and 75% said they liked the job more. (1)

Monitoring is detrimental to the health of worker teams as well as individual workers. By creating a climate of cutthroat competition, it discourages team spirit. Monitoring of groups instead of individual makes teamwork an effective means of encouraging both individual effort and the achievement of group goals.

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