Information overload makes managers ill

Click to follow
The arrival of the information age was finally confirmed yesterday when - like the Gulf war and chronic fatigue - a new syndrome was named after it.

Information overload syndrome is the result of the rapid growth of communications such as faxes, voice-mail, electronic mail, junk mail and the Internet, according to an international survey. Its symptoms include a feeling of inability to cope with the incoming data as it piles up, and it can result in mental stress and even physical illness which may require time off work. The survey found that it is a growing problem among managers - and almost all expect it to become worse.

Executives and their juniors say they are caught in a dilemma: everyone tells them that they should have more information so they can make better decisions, but the proliferation of sources makes it impossible to keep abreast of the data.

The report, Dying for Information? compiled by Reuter, drew on interviews with 1,300 managers in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. It found that half of the managers already complained of information overload, partly caused by "enormous" amounts of unsolicited information, and the same proportion expected the Internet to become a prime cause of the problem in the next two years. "These days, if you're a manager trying to do down a colleague, the best way to do it isn't to deny them access to data - it's to flood them in it," David Lewis, a psychologist who runs aconsultancy on stress, said.

The growth of information has been relentless. The New York Times contains as much distinct information every day as the average 17th-century person encountered in a lifetime.

Ruth Sacks, a consultant based in Sheffield, said she discovered about 12 months ago that she was working a total of seven days a week for clients "sending faxes, e-mail and reports, all of which had to be read and absorbed immediately, or so they said".

She began feeling fatigued, with stomach pains and eye problems. "I took two days off and decided to be more structured in my dealings with these." She now sets strict time limits for dealing with tasks, and throws away anything she does not need at once.