Monideepa Tarafdar

Monideepa Tarafdar
Monideepa Tarafdar

Here’s something you might not expect to hear from an influential UMass Amherst professor who studies technology-induced stress and methods to cope with it: “Just this morning, Zoom was giving me so much trouble in a meeting that I was yelling at the screen,” says Monideepa Tarafdar, the Charles J. Dockendorff Endowed Professor of Information Systems at the Isenberg School of Management.

Monideepa has an unparalleled understanding of technostress and how we can manage our frustration with it. One of the first scholars to identify and study technostress, her work has influenced other scholars, companies, and governments. Her recent work extends to examining the dark and bright sides of social media use as well as understanding bias in artificial intelligence-based hiring.

Educated in her native India, Monideepa studied physics, math, and chemistry as an undergraduate and earned a master’s degree in engineering and a PhD in Management, specializing in information systems and strategy. She has taught at the University of Toledo (Ohio) and at Lancaster University in England. She began teaching at UMass Amherst in January 2021 and serves as her department’s PhD coordinator.

Monideepa and her co-authors’ groundbreaking first paper on technostress was published in 2007 and detailed five conditions that can result in this phenomenon. The first is technology related overload. For example, we feel stressed when we must keep updating our passwords and installing security patches or respond to an avalanche of emails. Second is technological complexity. We feel anxious when we have to continually learn new programs and their functionalities. The third stressor is uncertainty caused by lack of control about how technology we use changes and evolves. Fourth is invasion, the feeling that technology is consuming our lives. The fifth stressor is insecurity stemming from the fear of being unable to keep up with essential tech.

To deal with these stressors we should look at stress as a process, not as an outcome, says Monideepa. “When you see stress as a process you can make preparations to avoid it or you can cope with what you’re feeling so that the negative effects are reduced at different points in the process,” she explains.

She has identified useful mechanisms for managing technostress, which has escalated worldwide as a household phenomenon as the pandemic increased our dependence on technology. One extreme coping mechanism is unplugging from technology altogether. However, as Monideepa notes, for most of us this strategy is unsustainable beyond a weekend. Distancing—stepping away from your computer or phone for a short break—is more feasible. Or you might vent, as Monideepa did when her Zoom program malfunctioned. “Acknowledge that you’re feeling frustrated and just let it out, yell at your computer if you want,” she advises. “As long as you’re in control it’s okay.”

It’s also helpful to positively reorient your point of view by reminding yourself of the benefits of technology. After all, Zoom allows us to transcend space and time. Monideepa points out that mastering technology will also help us cope with technostress. Finally, be proactive. Anticipate that the challenges posed by technology are nothing new and tell yourself not to get upset. “If you are learning how to cope you are making yourself responsible,” she says.

On the organizational level, employers should give workers a portfolio of strategies for avoiding technostress. “You cannot tell people how to use tech because tech is so flexible; different things work for different people” Monideepa says. “You can only provide guidance.” Stemming from phenomena such as technostress, Monideepa examines the wider effects of technology on workplace well-being of different types of workers, such as Uber drivers in the gig economy.

Monideepa has published more than 120 papers, many in leading journals such as Information Systems Research, Journal of MIS, and MIT Sloan Management Review, concerning the broader question, “How can we build workplace and societal resilience in technology use?” According to Senay Solak, professor and chair of Isenberg’s department of operations and information management, Monideepa’s highly cited research is significant because it engages with real-life problems and makes a visible impact on workplace and societal well-being.

For instance, through her research on social networking sites, Monideepa and her co-authors made a counterintuitive discovery: When users are stressed out by social media use, instead of turning away from their devices many users spend even more time on them. “They keep searching and digging within the same social media app for something to comfort them and then two hours are gone and they’re zombies,” she observes. This research has disturbing implications for the potential for addiction to social media.

On the positive side, Monideepa has also investigated the use of social media to bring about beneficial social change through online activism and social movements, on issues such as climate change and misogyny, such as when people united in India to urge rape law reform several years ago.

Currently, she is investigating gender and ethnic bias in artificial intelligence-based hiring. “These hiring tools are being deployed widely,” she says. “Because of their scale, any good or bad they do will be magnified. We want to understand bias and learn to manage it.” As a member of the campus’s new Public Interest Technology (PIT@UMass) initiative, she will have further opportunities to investigate how technology can advance society.

Monideepa says her research has shown her that by understanding both the dark and bright sides of technology we can learn to leverage the positive and mitigate the negative. “Technology can be used in many ways,” she says. “When we build healthy patterns of responsible and intelligent use, there is the potential to do a lot of good.”

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