Better a broken heart than a frozen screen

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Psychologists have identified the archetypal affliction of the new millennium: computer failure syndrome. A new survey of office workers has revealed that one in eight find IT failure, an everyday occurrence in many offices, more stressful than the breakdown of a relationship.

Psychologists have identified the archetypal affliction of the new millennium: computer failure syndrome. A new survey of office workers has revealed that one in eight find IT failure, an everyday occurrence in many offices, more stressful than the breakdown of a relationship.

The symptoms are easy to spot. The first sighting of a frozen mouse is usually enough to make the blood boil. Palpitations follow the appearance of those dread words, "Unable to connect to server" - and the even more sinister, "A type 3 error has occurred. Shut down and start again" sends blood pressure soaring.

The survey of 200 people, commissioned by technology firm ICL, has measured stress levels caused by computer crashes by asking those surveyed how system failures compared with other stressful situations.

According to the study, 68 per cent of office workers regard visiting the in-laws as less stressful than a computer crash, while 38 per cent would rather be stuck on public transport.

One in 10 find PC failure more stressful than missing a holiday flight, while one in three would rather babysit. When asked which IT failures caused the most stress, workers pointed to computer or network failure, followed by printer, e-mail and internet malfunctions in that order.

"What this survey shows is that we have become more and dependent on this funny machine in front of us," said Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. "As a result, people get hysterical when a computer breaks down."

An expert on the working environment, Prof Cooper has identified a number of trademark symptoms that push stress levels through the roof. Palpitations begin, he says, with the first signs of a frozen computer or warning message. The tendency to hurl insults at the impassive screen or else punch the hard drive does not help.

But what really sends blood pressure soaring is the last resort: the call to the IT "help" desk for assistance.

Prof Cooper believes that stress levels are compounded by inadequate IT support due to a lack of financial investment in back-up staff.

The survey supports his comments: 60 per cent of those questioned blamed poor work performance on the failure of IT staff to sort problems out speedily, while 50 per cent want technical training so that they can iron out problems without resorting to support staff. Workers are also frustrated by slow or old technology: one in four reckon they waste between 30 minutes and an hour each day because of it.

Prof Cooper warns, however, that we should not get too wound up over crashing screens: "Computers are pretty fundamental to our working lives but not as important as a relationship. So to find a computer breakdown more stressful is really pretty sad. Actually, I think it's pathetic."

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