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The impact of Information Overload on individual stress feelings of management accountants



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The impact of Information Overload on individual
stress feelings of management accountants
Dr Thomas Rachfall a
Dirk Förster-Trallo b, Dr Elizabeth Williamson c, Dr Bryan Temple d
a Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft Berlin, Fachbereich 4, Ostendstraße 1, 12459 Berlin, Germany, E-Mail:,
Phone: 49 (0) 30 5019 3686
a Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft Berlin, Fachbereich 4, Ostendstraße 1, 12459 Berlin, Germany, E-Mail: dirk.foerster-trallo@htw-, Phone: 49 (0) 30 5019 3596
c Glasgow Caledonian University, Glasgow School for Business and Society, Glasgow G4 0BA, E-Mail:, Phone:
0141 331 3122
d Glasgow Caledonian University, Glasgow, E-mail:
Almost every knowledge worker can relate to feelings of Information Overload (IO) and as a result some
knowledge worker feel stress as a result of IO. Thereby IO and stress have both various effects on individuals and
organizations. Despite intensive research during the last decades the complex relationship of both scientific
disciplines still lacks comprehensive research about their connections. This research presents therefore a
conceptual framework to analyze this relationship. A case study approach has been conducted to examine the
connection between IO and the effect on individual stress feelings of management accountants. The research found
out that IO has an effect on stress. Furthermore the different causes, coping strategies and countermeasures in the
environment of management accountants were analyzed. The contribution to the field of stress research is a better
understanding of the IO concept and the impact of IO to stress.
Information Overload; information processing, stress, management accountants
Conference topic
1. Introduction
The continuous and irresistible progress of economies and technology has created such a turbulent environment
that organisations have to react very fast to all kinds of changes [Doppler and Lauterburg 2000; Manwani et al.
2001; Davis and Ganeshan 2009]. They have to compete not only in classical factors such as prices, wages and
quality but also for information [Brandes et al. 1990; Baumöl 2008]. Furthermore, the development of information
and communication technology (ICT) and the rise of the knowledge economy have both contributed to the
importance and impact of information within business [Bouwman et al. 2005; Sumecki et al. 2011]. The latest
phase of ICT development has resulted in integrated business processes and large databases which may be accessed
by a variety of methods and applications [Bouwman et al. 2005; Farhoomand and Drury 2002]. The further
improvements of management information systems, such as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems,
Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems and Supplier Relationship Management (SRM) systems
make sure that internal information as well as external information is available to many employees in an
organisation at any time and at any place [Lazer et al. 2014; Jones and Rafaeli 2004; Simperl et al. 2010]. These
aspects, currently known as big data, have led to the situation of much or even too much information being
available for decision making purposes [King 2014]. The core problem is that the more information is offered the
bigger is the subjective information requirement of individuals [Brockhoff 1983; Shenk 1998; Bork 1994]. In
combination with the increasing information amount [Hilbert and Lopez 2011] the fit between offered and required
* Corresponding author.
information can be a problem. This is not critical at all, if everybody could filter his specific information [Wingens
2008]. However, it gets more difficult to separate relevant from irrelevant information [Davis and Ganeshan 2009;
Manwani et al. 2001; Speier and Morris 2000]; thereby a paradox accrues: within a flood of information a lack of
information exists [Shenk 1998]. Summarised this effects can be explained as IO.
Effects of IO are manifold and researched by numerous studies [for example Farhoomand and Drury 2002; Kirsh
2000 and Kulke 2006]. IO could lead to less work satisfaction, psychological and physiological illnesses and
consequently to a declining performance [Edmunds and Morris 2000; Sprenger et al. 2012; Bork 1994; Speier et
al. 1999; Moser et al. 2002]. Furthermore, individuals suffer from stress symptoms and illnesses, with effects
ranging from headaches to depression [Miller 2004]. To contribute a better understanding of the IO phenomenon
as well as stress, this paper analyses the connections between the topics.
2. Theory
IO is an often mentioned phenomenon in our globalized society and scientists have analysed the phenomenon since
decades. Both quantitative and qualitative research about causes, symptoms and countermeasures has been carried
out. Eppler and Mengis [2004] as well as Edmunds and Morris [2000] summed up most of the existing work in
their literature reviews. This contribution focuses on a specific part of the phenomenon: the impact of IO to stress
feelings of individuals.
2.1 Information overload
Most people use the term IO and mean that they just receive too much information. However, because the term IO
is multifaceted the wide research community sets up more precise explanations. Because of the different scientific
disciplines and circles which are researching and discussing IO (among others: psychology, stress science, decision
making, biology, accounting, organization science, marketing and management information systems), the problem
is described with several terms. So it is not surprising that there is an overload of words which describe IO (e.g.
Information flood, information smog, sensory overload, information explosion, cognitive overload, information
load, information glut, knowledge overload, information fatigue syndrome, data overload, data explosion,
cognitive load, etc.). Within the current publications of the last years the term IO prevails, but without ousting the
other ones. Because of the immense number of existing terms and publications and included definitions, it is
complicated to define the term IO properly. Edmunds and Morris [2000, p. 18] described in one of the first
extensively literature review about IO, that there is no universal definition in spite of all publications. This is
reasoned in the fact that IO can describe different situations, for example an accumulation of information which
can’t be processes because of the limited possibilities of the human brain. An opposite meaning would have an
excessive amount of information of which just small amounts are relevant. The term contains negative aspects for
individuals and/ or organizations. One of the first general definitions was established by Milford et al. [1977, p.
131]: “Information overload occurs when the amount of input to a system exceeds its processing capacity.” This
classic definition was then expanded by Tushman and Nadler [1977, p. 615] and explained in this formula:
information processing requirements (IPR) > information processing capacities (IPC). The two terms can be
explained as follows:
Information processing capacity: Individual information processing can be characterized by individual aspects
(such as: willingness, acceptance, motivation, knowledge, relevance, etc.)The core question is: How large is the
individual cognitive capacity?
Information processing requirements: Information processing can also be characterized by non-individual
aspects (such as: presentation format, access, completeness, number of options, time pressure, etc.). The core
question is: How much capacity is needed to solve the problem / make a decision?
Thereby the terms requirement and capacity can be measured in available time [Eppler and Mengis 2004, p. 326].
IO therefore indicates a capacity and requirement problem as well as a time problem. Therefore this paper
subsequently refers also to the definition of Bork [1994, p. 59]: “IO exists, if the given time under consideration
of the systems period capacity, does not last out to process the accruing information properly during the decision
making process/ task completion.” This definition offers consciously a range, because the exact moment on which
IO occurs is hardly to determine. The transition from under-load to overload is fluent because the dysfunctional
effect increases continuously [Bork 1994, p. 59].
2.2 Stress as a consequence of Information Overload
During the last years more and more studies researched about different stress causes [for example Michi 2002;
Kivimäki 2005; Mino 2009]. However, IO as a possible cause has not been considered. On the other hand, several
studies researched about the symptoms of IO [for example Spira 2012; Gwizdka 2004; Janssen and de Poot 2006].
To connect these related scientific fields a framework was developed, which is based on the classic IO definition
of Tushmann and Nadler [1977, 615]. They compare the individual information processing capacity (IPC) - or as
Allen et al. [2005, p. 5] call it: information behaviour - with the information processing requirements (IPR). As
soon as the IPR is bigger than the IPC, IO accrues. This paper focuses not on the different influence factors (IPC
or IPR), it focuses on the influence of IO on stress (Figure 1).
Figure 1: research model
As explained above, the imbalance of IPC and IPR could lead to IO and as a consequence to stress. Karasek’s JDC
model [1979] demonstrates this context in detail. On one hand, a high job demand and on the other hand a low job
control result in psychological load, which cause according to his model mental strain. In this generally accepted
model the term “job demand” sums up various psychological strains (for example as a result of information
overload), whereby the term job control comprises two components: (1) the worker's authority to make decisions
on the job (decision authority) and (2) the variety of skills used by the worker on the job (skill discretion) [Ganster
and Schaubroeck 1991]. The resulting mental strain could lead to various stress symptoms. Depressions, suicide
and mental disorders are the most commonly determined symptoms of stress [Michi 2002].
3. Methodology
The developed framework was used to analyse the influence of IO on individual stress feelings of management
accountants through a case study research in four different companies. Furthermore a pilot study and a pre-test
were conducted.
3.1 Sample and data collection process
As mentioned above a case study approach was used to collect the needed data. The advantage of this research
strategy is that it entails empirical investigation of the complex IO topic as well as the stress topic [Thomas, 2004
and Saunders et al., 2007]. Consequently quantitative (structured interview) as well as qualitative data (open
interview and observation) were collected. To have the possibility to compare the results and find similarities and
differences between the cases, a multiple case study strategy (with four cases) was chosen. For this reason Yin
[2003] argues that multiple case studies are preferable to single ones.
Within the four case companies the research focus was on management accounting departments as a place for
information workers. Across the cases 20 management accountants participated. They ranged in age from 29 to
55, with the median age being 34.5. The median job experience was 7 years. Respondents were more likely to be
male (85%) and all have an academic background. The participants worked an average of 8.4 hours a day and used
thereof 7.7 hours ICT. The most important communication channels for the management accountants are email,
face - to - face meetings (informal and formal) and databases.
The collected data were analysed with the objective of establishing links between IO and stress. This was achieved
by the calculation of both descriptive statistics for each of the measurement items, and the Pearson correlation
coefficient. The data were analysed by SPSS and MS Excel. The qualitative data were clustered with the help of
the affinity diagram technique.
3.2 Measures
To test the influence of IO on stress the participants were asked and observed regarding the following topics. The
used items during the quantitative part of the analysis are influenced by the work of Moser et al. [2000], Krohne
et al. [1996; PANAS Scale], Prümper [1995; KFZA Scale] and Semmer et al. [1999; ISTA Scale]. The items are
part of the following three scales:
Information Overload: Within this topic it is important to find out how and to what extend management
accountants suffer from IO. A scale with 11 items was used to analyse the IO phenomenon. A high value means
that a participant feels a lot of IO. The internal consistency of the scale is Alpha 0.85.
Psychological pressure: Main objective of this topic is to find insights about the psychological pressure of the
management accountants caused by IO. A scale with 14 items focuses most of all on psychological feelings
(pressure, angriness, nervousness, etc.). A high value means that a participant receives a lot of pressure. The
internal consistency of the scale is Alpha 0.87.
Stress symptoms: This topic analyses which stress symptoms exists and under which symptoms management
accountants suffer. A scale with 9 items handles the psychological and physiological stress symptoms. A high
value means that a participant suffer under stress. The internal consistency of the scale is Alpha 0.82.
The participants were also asked and observed about the nature of their work, communication behaviour, ICT
trainings, ICT competence, ICT equipment and demographics.
As explained above the study also contains qualitative results which also can be assigned to the mentioned topics.
Within the qualitative section answers and statements from the management accountants (interviews and
observations) were displayed in order to find out how the participants suffer from stress. The research framework
of this section is represented by Figure 2. Thereby, situations are analysed when stress because of ICT related IO
causes (1) or due to other IO causes (2) occur. Furthermore, coping strategies (3) as well as wishes to avoid stress
as a result of IO (4) from management accountants are analysed.
Figure 2: research framework
4. Findings
The core topic of this paper is, if IO has an impact on stress. Therefore the mentioned topics in section 3.2 were
analysed with the help of a correlation analyses. As shown in Table 1, all three scales, related to the mentioned
topics, show an inter-correlative connection. This includes the scale IO and psychological pressure as well as
stress. This is probably reasoned in the partly similar basis of the scales psychological pressure and stress (reasoned
in the used scales, please see section 3.2). The results of this research support the model of Wingens [2008], the
overload vicious circle. Assumption of this circle is that overload (and therefore also IO) leads to a higher
psychological demand (pressure). As a consequence stress appears what then again results in higher overload.
More detailed the mean of psychological pressure in this research is higher than stress, because stress appears as
a result of psychological pressure. Stress feelings of the participants exits but are not high.
Table 1: descriptive statistics for measurement factors
More important for this study is the connection between the IO and stress. Therefore, one necessary step is an
analysis how stress is correlated to the IO topic. The result is presented in Table 2 for the cross case analysis (the
analysis of all participants) and for the single case companies. The analysis shows that in case company III, case
company IV and in the cross case positive correlation can be detected. This means: increasing IO leads to more
Table 2: correlation between stress and Information Overload (IO)
In addition to the presented scales the study also contains qualitative results which also can be assigned to the
mentioned topics. Thereby, situations are analysed when stress because of ICT related IO causes (1) or due to other
IO causes (2) occur. Furthermore, coping strategies (3) as well as wishes to avoid stress as a result of IO (4) from
management accountants are analysed.
1. The prepared answers shown in Figure 3, describe typical ICT related stress situations. With the help of the
affinity diagram technique different clusters were identified. Thereby, just topics with more than three mentions
are shown. The majority of the management accountants answered that most of all ICT problems (for example
performance problems or computer crashes) cause stress. Other causes are interruptions, permanent availability,
the amount of information and missing support. Mackay [2000] shows similar results in his analysis about
technology related barriers. He also detected breaks or crashes (29%) as the biggest ICT related problem.
Figure 3: ICT stress situations (IO causes)
2. During the interviews the management accountants were asked “what other IO causes result in stress at work?”
With the help of the affinity diagram technique different clusters were identified. Thereby, just topics with more
than three mentions are shown. As displayed in Figure 4, five clusters were built. The management accountants
mentioned time pressure, bad working atmosphere, unclear working tasks, missing information and quantity
problems as causes. The clusters are comparable to the causes, detected by Eppler and Mengis [2004]
(organisational, task, information and personal).
Figure 4: other stress situations (IO causes)
3. Another part of the research are the different individual protection strategies. With the help of the affinity
diagram technique different clusters were identified. Thereby, just topics with more than three mentions are shown.
Most of the mentioned coping strategies in Figure 5 can be summarised under the term “ignoring”. The clusters
include coping strategies as: ignoring tasks (filtering), doing sport, leaving/ escaping and new prioritisation of
tasks. The coping strategies are similar to each other and lead to mistakes. Escaping and ignoring strategies are
Figure 5: coping strategies
4. The participants wish to avoid stress because of IO is closely related to the mentioned causes in point one and
two. With the help of the affinity diagram technique different clusters were identified. Thereby, just topics with
more than three mentions are shown. The wishes (displayed in Figure 6) of the participants are first of all wishes
to reduce the amount of information or communication. Furthermore, the participants wish better and stable
hardware and software as well as more and effective training possibilities.
Figure 6: wishes to avoid stress as a result of IO
5. Discussion and Conclusions
This study with a focus on the impact of the IO phenomenon on stress is based on a sample of 20 management
accountants with a relatively young age, well-educated which have a high experience with the modern
communication channels. Furthermore the findings show meaningful connections. The correlation analysis shows
that a positive correlation between IO and stress can be detected. That means increasing IO leads to more stress.
This was also detected by other authors like Speier and Morris [2000], Hemp [2009] and Farhoomand and Drury
[2002]. A correlation between IO with psychological pressure and stress can also be detected. The research data
supports the conclusion that there is a relationship between IO and stress. However, the data analysis from the
quantitative and the qualitative part of the study in combination with the prior findings indicates that the
management accountants rarely suffer from stress. In order to avoid stress as a result of IO, the management
accountants wish to reduce the amount of information and communication, through the use of better and more
stable hardware and software as well as more and effective training.
To forecast the behaviour of individuals and organizations it is essential to understand the changes to both IO and
stress. With a deeper understanding on these dimensions it is possible to manage the future information flow. This
in turn could help to optimize the balance between too less and too much information. Consequently the
information flow could be improved and effective countermeasures can be established. This results in a decreasing
stress-level for humans and cut costs for organisations. This study provides findings based on a relatively small
sample base. Thus, a suggestion for future research is to increase the sample size.
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... The concept of information overload has been known for quite a while, and is usually defined as an occurrence when the amount of received information exceeds the one's ability to process it (Jacoby, 1977;Malhotra et al., 1982) and "information received becomes a hindrance rather than a help when the information is potentially useful" (Bawden et al., 1999, p. 250). Information overload can also be defined in relation to the quality of information, which is often associated with the uncertainty, ambiguity, novelty, and complexity of information (Chae et al., 2016;Eppler & Mengis, 2008;Schommer et al., 2001;Rachfall et al., 2015). People of all ages may suffer from information overload, but young people have experienced the most difficulty in processing large quantities of information (Bensilin & Ragsdell, 2016;Edmunds & Morris 2000). ...
... In times of crisis especially, people may feel inundated in an ocean of information and find it difficult to differentiate fact from fiction (Rachfall et al., 2015). This could result in feelings of distress, ambiguity, anxiety, frustration, as well as the inability to cope with such large amounts of information (Bawden et al., 1999;Kim et al., 2007;Klapp, 1986); alternatively, information overload could bring a sense of relief that there is so much information to sift through and learn from. ...
... With information so readily available, young people constantly checked various information sources in hope of finding answers or helpful information. Instead, prevailing uncertainty and competing narratives about the novel coronavirus contributed to the creation of more anxiety and fear (Chae at al., 2016;Eppler & Mengis, 2008;Schommer et al., 2001;Rachfall et al., 2015;Swar et al., 2017). Furthermore, the quest to find accurate health information appears to reach addiction-like levels for some respondents in both countries. ...
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The negative consequences of information overload are well understood across a range of disciplines even though the causative factors that contribute to it have not been coherently researched. We apply the concept of 'aversion to loss' from prospect theory and explore its effects in the context of information processing for decision making. A controlled laboratory experiment was performed to test the hypothesis that humans acquire and process relatively more information under the threat of information unavailability. Our results indicate strong support for the hypothesis. Further, we show that despite processing more information, people are less satisfied with their decisions than those who have free and continuous access to information. Implications and extensions of the study are presented.
Veränderungsprojekte gehören zum Alltag jeder größeren Organisation. Oftmals erreichen sie jedoch die gesetzten Ziele nur unvollständig oder scheitern, obwohl zahlreiche Change Management-Methoden zur Steuerung zur Verfügung stehen. Vorliegende Studien weisen darauf hin, dass auftretende Umsetzungsprobleme unter anderem in den zu starren oder aber zu fokussierten Methoden liegen. Um eine flexible und dynamisch anpassbare Steuerung für Veränderungsprojekte zu erarbeiten, analysiert Ulrike Baumöl 89 Fallstudien sowie existierende Erklärungsansätze. Auf dieser Basis entwickelt sie ein situativ getriebenes Methodenkonstruktionsverfahren. Dieses ermöglicht anhand von Referenzszenarien die Klassifikation des geplanten Veränderungsvorhabens und eine an die Situation des Unternehmens angepasste Kombination von Bausteinen bestehender Methoden. Die praktische Anwendbarkeit des Methodenkonstruktionsverfahrens wird anhand von vier Fallstudien, bei denen das vorgeschlagene Verfahren sowohl ex-ante als auch ex-post eingesetzt wurde, validiert.
1 Today's Situation, Tommorrow's Prospects.- 2 Organization: Design for Change.- 3 Leadership: the Manager's New Role.- 1 The (Psycho)Logical Basis For Failure.- 2 Key Factors for Successful Action.- 3 Phases of the Process and Their Pitfalls.- 4 Leadership in Transition.- 5 Hierarchy and Power: Enemies of Change?.- 6 Charter for Managing Change.- 1 Tools and Procedures of Corporate Development.- 2 Organizational Diagnosis.- 3 Management by Agreed Targets.- 4 Facilitating processes.- 5 Personal Feedback.- 6 Process-Oriented Project Management.- 7 Dealing with Resistance.- 8 Handling Communication.- 9 The Art of Designing Workshops.- 10 Conflict Management.- 11 Changing a Company's Culture.- 12 Performance Improvement.- 13 Coaching.- 14 Criteria for Successful Management.- 15 Qualifications for Managing Change.- Outlook and Prospects.- Acknowledgments.
How can we best understand why the application of information and communication technology in organizations succeeds or fails? Calling on technical, organizational, social, psychological and economic perspectives, this book provides a fresh and comprehensive framework for answering this question.
The purpose of this research was to establish a methodology for studying stimulus overload in the psychological laboratory. It was argued that in order to maximize the conditions of overload in simulation, the dimensional criteria of maximal intensity, maximal diversity, and minimal patterning must be included in the methodology. In addition, it was suggested that the psychological phenomenon of overload be operationally defined in terms of the individual's perception of overload rather than the input-output capacity of the system. In a 3 × 2 design, 60 male and female college students performed either an overload or no overload version of a proofreading-vigilance task, a driving-memory task, or a computation-interruption task. The driving-memory task, which was intended to be most extreme on the dimensions of intensity, diversity, and patterning, was perceived as the most overloading of the three experimental tasks. This led to the conclusion that this driving-memory task represented a substantial improvement over existing methods, warranting its future use as a standard methodology.
Interruptions are a common aspect of the work environment of most organizations. Yet little is known about how intemptions and their characteristics, such as frequency of occurrence, influence decision-making performance of individuals. Consequently, this paper reports the results of two experiments investigating the influence of interruptions on individual decision making. Interruptions were found to improve decision-making performance on simple tasks and to lower performance on complex tasks. For complex tasks, the frequency of interruptions and the dissimilarity of content between the pri-mary and interruption tasks was found to exacerbate this effect. The implications of these results for future research and practice are discussed.
This paper reviews the literature on the problem of information overload, with particular reference to business organisations. The literature reveals that although the problem of information overload has existed for many years, in recent years the problem has become more widely recognised and experienced. Both perceptions and the actual effects of information overload have been exacerbated by the rapid advances made in information and communication technology, although it is not clear cut as to whether the Internet has worsened or improved the situation. A theme stressed in the literature is the paradoxical situation that, although there is an abundance of information available, it is often difficult to obtain useful, relevant information when it is needed. Some solutions put forward to reduce information overload are: a reduction in the duplication of information found in the professional literature; the adoption of personal information management strategies, together with the integration of software solutions such as push technology and intelligent agents; and the provision of value-added information (filtered by software or information specialists). An emphasis is placed on technology as a tool and not the driver, while increased information literacy may provide the key to reducing information overload.