Life & Work

Dealing with data overload at work


African start-ups cannot ignore data protection compliance anymore. PHOTO | POOL

Maureen Nduta receives an average of 20 e-mails every day. These come from her employer, colleagues, clients, and random salespeople pushing real estate or lingerie sales.

By the end of the week, the nurse in Nairobi has to clear her inbox to be able to send e-mails.

“I hardly read mail from my employer unless it is addressed to me. I end up missing important company updates. It is too much information to keep up with,” she laments.

In between, she receives tens of invitations to virtual meetings and updates from colleagues on multiple works WhatsApp groups. There are also messages from family and friends.

“I delete most of the messages without reading them. It is overwhelming,” she says.

For Emma Cherop, it is the number of new software at her workplace that dizzies her. Her employer, a company that provides payment solutions to start-ups, keeps introducing new software for office work that the computer engineer is unable to stay up to date with.

There are apps for managing tasks and projects, monitoring productivity, exchanging communication, organising and storing files and others for client management.

“We are expected to learn them all. Sometimes they are replaced even before we have fully learnt them,” Ms Cherop says.

Ms Nduta and Ms Cherop’s circumstances mirror the quandary that most professionals find themselves in today’s work environment — an information and technology (ICT) overload.

From the ever-changing software for facilitating daily operations to instructions, new communication and meetings, every area of human life today depend on ICT. It is worse at the workplace where nearly every task relies on tech.

Terry Micheni, a psychologist and head of human capital at Sumac Microfinance Bank, argues that when communication is not done effectively, it amounts to noise.

“There is just too much information to employees these days.”

She says how communication is prepared, the attitude towards the communication, the channel used to convey it and the timing all determine absorption levels.

“If you go wrong with any of these, you risk a disconnect with your recipient. You end up creating noise,” she warns.

So, how effectively can companies package information for their employees?

It begins with understanding your team, employees and the recipients of your information, she notes.

“Companies need to assess the absorption rates of information first to know how much information to give so that it will not hit a psychological block from the intended recipients.’’

She adds that this assessment helps to know the level of recipient preparedness before communications are disseminated.

“You may have a lot of information to give, but is it all necessary at the same time? There is only so much the human brain can absorb and retain before you get to feel cognitive overload.”

The psychologist says this overload occurs when the recipient reaches a point where they cannot process and act on communication because of “information paralysis”.

Ms Micheni says there is a need to check out both internal and external factors that might influence how recipients assimilate information.

On the overuse of ICT devices at work, entrepreneur and tech innovator Prince Charles Oduk says companies are in a race to integrate technology into their operations, which sometimes leads to fundamental blunders.

The founder and CEO at PAIC Limited say this leads to either objection from employees or underutilisation even after spending a lot of money.

“The major issue arising from this rapid uptake of software is a lack of customer education. This is especially the case if the use of this software is the only way to reach and deliver services to end users. Changing the software so frequently often leads to user fatigue,” says Mr Oduk.

He notes that the majority of employers invest in software that serves the same purpose as those they have replaced.

“Few software companies offer unique products,” he says.

Mr Oduk, though, believes that technology has simplified tasks that traditionally required human input, which is positive for the entire ecosystem of work.

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“We still need human talent and effort at the workplace. When enterprises invest so heavily in technology, the ripple effect is an overreliance on machines at the expense of human contribution, which leads to job losses,” notes Mr Oduk.

He says employers should not attempt to replace humans at the workplace even as they invest in software and other technology. “Let humans do what humans can do.”

Even as professionals like Ms Cherop and Ms Nduta try to handle one task at a time to soak up the pressure at work, it always proves too much.

Ms Micheni notes that work overload and burnout are mostly experienced when the bulk of assignments are over digital platforms.

“By sitting for prolonged hours, employees are held captive. There is also minimal physical activity. This affects their physical and mental health,” she notes.

Findings of multiple research show that overuse of ICT devices that are not well-maintained exposes employees to unhealthy radiation that harms their physical and mental state such as eye problems, migraines, and even cell mutations.

Yet the use of headphones and earphones by professionals while working at their desks is the norm. Ms Micheni says this creates antisocial behaviour that leads to social isolation, depression, low self-esteem, and loneliness.

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Prolonged use of earphones also comes with health complications, notably permanent hearing loss, according to the World Health Organisation.

Mr Oduk agrees: “Technology is good and is playing a critical role in the [ongoing] Fourth Industrial Revolution. It is important to moderate how we consume it at work to avoid disastrous consequences.”

Ms Micheni adds: “Physical and mental health issues affect employee performance directly due to absenteeism, pains and cognitive blocks. There is a probability of having zombies in the office.”

To the organisation, this means losses due to dropped performance, but also increased cost of providing health insurance.

“You also incur other costs for recruitment and training when you lose employees to health issues,” says Ms Micheni.

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