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Wednesday, 12 January 2011 20:12

Electronic Work Monitoring

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The computerization of work has made possible the development of a new approach to work monitoring called electronic performance monitoring (EPM). EPM has been defined as the “computerized collection, storage, analysis, and reporting of information about employees’ activities on a continuous basis” (USOTA 1987). Although banned in many European countries, electronic performance monitoring is increasing throughout the world on account of intense competitive pressures to improve productivity in a global economy.

EPM has changed the psychosocial work environment. This application of computer technology has significant implications for work supervision, workload demands, performance appraisal, performance feedback, rewards, fairness and privacy. As a result, occupational health researchers, worker representatives, government agencies and the public news media have expressed concern about the stress-health effects of electronic performance monitoring (USOTA 1987).

Traditional approaches to work monitoring include direct observation of work behaviours, examination of work samples, review of progress reports and analysis of performance measures (Larson and Callahan 1990). Historically, employers have always attempted to improve on these methods of monitoring worker performance. Considered as part of a continuing monitoring effort across the years, then, EPM is not a new development. What is new, however, is the use of EPM, particularly in office and service work, to capture employee performance on a second-by-second, keystroke-by-keystroke basis so that work management in the form of corrective action, performance feedback, delivery of incentive pay, or disciplinary measures can be taken at any time (Smith 1988). In effect, the human supervisor is being replaced by an electronic supervisor.

EPM is used in office work such as word processing and data entry to monitor keystroke production and error rates. Airline reservation clerks and directory assistance operators are monitored by computers to determine how long it takes to service customers and to measure the time interval between calls. EPM also is used in more traditional economic sectors. Freight haulers, for example, are using computers to monitor driver speed and fuel consumption, and tire manufacturers are electronically monitoring the productivity of rubber workers. In sum, EPM is used to establish performance standards, track employee performance, compare actual performance with predetermined standards and administer incentive pay programmes based on these standards (USOTA 1987).

Advocates of EPM assert that continuous electronic work monitoring is essential to high performance and productivity in the contemporary workplace. It is argued that EPM enables managers and supervisors to organize and control human, material and financial resources. Specifically, EPM provides for:

  1. increased control over performance variability
  2. increased objectivity and timeliness of performance evaluation and feedback
  3. efficient management of large office and customer service operations through the electronic supervision of work, and
  4. establishment and enforcement of performance standards (for example, number of forms processed per hour).


Supporters of electronic monitoring also claim that, from the worker’s perspective, there are several benefits. Electronic monitoring, for example, can provide regular feedback of work performance, which enables workers to take corrective action when necessary. It also satisfies the worker’s need for self-evaluation and reduces performance uncertainty.

Despite the possible benefits of EPM, there is concern that certain monitoring practices are abusive and constitute an invasion of employee privacy (USOTA 1987). Privacy has become an issue particularly when workers do not know when or how often they are being monitored. Since work organizations often do not share performance data with workers, a related privacy issue is whether workers should have access to their own performance records or the right to question possible wrong information.

Workers also have raised objections to the manner in which monitoring systems have been implemented (Smith, Carayon and Miezio 1986; Westin 1986). In some workplaces, monitoring is perceived as an unfair labour practice when it is used to measure individual, as opposed to group, performance. In particular, workers have taken exception to the use of monitoring to enforce compliance with performance standards that impose excessive workload demands. Electronic monitoring also can make the work process more impersonal by replacing a human supervisor with an electronic supervisor. In addition, the overemphasis on increased production may encourage workers to compete instead of cooperate with one another.

Various theoretical paradigms have been postulated to account for the possible stress-health effects of EPM (Amick and Smith 1992; Schleifer and Shell 1992; Smith et al. 1992b). A fundamental assumption made by many of these models is that EPM indirectly influences stress-health outcomes by intensifying workload demands, diminishing job control and reducing social support. In effect, EPM mediates changes in the psychosocial work environment that result in an imbalance between the demands of the job and the worker’s resources to adapt.

The impact of EPM on the psychosocial work environment is felt at three levels of the work system: the organization-technology interface, the job-technology interface and the human-technology interface (Amick and Smith 1992). The extent of work system transformation and the subsequent implications for stress outcomes are contingent upon the inherent characteristics of the EPM process; that is, the type of information gathered, the method of gathering the information and the use of the information (Carayon 1993). These EPM characteristics can interact with various job design factors and increase stress-health risks.

An alternative theoretical perspective views EPM as a stressor that directly results in strain independent of other job-design stress factors (Smith et al. 1992b; Carayon 1994). EPM, for example, can generate fear and tension as a result of workers being constantly watched by “Big Brother”. EPM also may be perceived by workers as an invasion of privacy that is highly threatening.

With respect to the stress effects of EPM, empirical evidence obtained from controlled laboratory experiments indicates that EPM can produce mood disturbances (Aiello and Shao 1993; Schleifer, Galinsky and Pan 1995) and hyperventilatory stress reactions (Schleifer and Ley 1994). Field studies have also reported that EPM alters job-design stress factors (for example, workload), which, in turn, generate tension or anxiety together with depression (Smith, Carayon and Miezio 1986; Ditecco et al. 1992; Smith et al. 1992b; Carayon 1994). In addition, EPM is associated with symptoms of musculoskeletal discomfort among telecommunication workers and data-entry office workers (Smith et al. 1992b; Sauter et al. 1993; Schleifer, Galinsky and Pan 1995).

The use of EPM to enforce compliance with performance standards is perhaps one of the most stressful aspects of this approach to work monitoring (Schleifer and Shell 1992). Under these conditions, it may be useful to adjust performance standards with a stress allowance (Schleifer and Shell 1992): a stress allowance would be applied to the normal cycle time, as is the case with other more conventional work allowances such as rest breaks and machine delays. Particularly among workers who have difficulty meeting EPM performance standards, a stress allowance would optimize workload demands and promote well-being by balancing the productivity benefits of electronic performance monitoring against the stress effects of this approach to work monitoring.

Beyond the question of how to minimize or prevent the possible stress-health effects of EPM, a more fundamental issue is whether this “Tayloristic” approach to work monitoring has any utility in the modern workplace. Work organizations are increasingly utilizing sociotechnical work-design methods, “total quality management” practices, participative work groups, and organizational, as opposed to individual, measures of performance. As a result, electronic work monitoring of individual workers on a continuous basis may have no place in high-performance work systems. In this regard, it is interesting to note that those countries (for example, Sweden and Germany) that have banned EPM are the same countries which have most readily embraced the principles and practices associated with high-performance work systems.


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