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9 out of 10 UK Business Leaders Suffer From Tech Anxiety That Disrupts Their Sleep, BT Study Finds

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While rapid digital transformations can result in many business benefits, a new study has revealed that they also take a toll on mental health. Nearly nine out of 10 U.K. business leaders say they suffer from tech-related stress that’s severe enough to disrupt their sleep.

BT commissioned a survey of 2,000 business decision makers to find out how the pace of digital change is impacting their mental health. It revealed that AI is the top cause of issues, with three in four respondents saying it has made them feel stressed or anxious in the past year.

These mental health implications also have an economic impact at both business and national levels. Estimates suggest that “tech paralysis” — where companies delay tech investment due to the stress it might bring — could cost the U.K. economy £11.79 billion by 2030. BT’s research estimates that 104,000 British businesses may opt out of digitisation this year due to the pain of implementation, transformation and upskilling.

Smriti Joshi, lead psychologist at AI-driven mental health platform Wysa and member of the British Psychological Society, told TechRepublic the results of the study were “alarming but not surprising given the long-standing mental health implications of rapid digitization.”

“The pandemic led to an unprecedented acceleration of digital transformation, forcing businesses to adapt quickly to survive and compete, often without adequate support,” she added in an email.

“The increasing complexity of technology and the constant pressure to stay ahead in a competitive market create a perfect storm of stress and anxiety. Fields like AI and machine learning, along with heightened cybersecurity threats, only intensify these feelings, leading to sleepless nights for professionals and business owners.”

Why AI is the biggest concern for UK business leaders

When it comes to AI, the biggest concern business leaders have is data privacy and security, which was cited by 34% of respondents. The rapid spread of AI applications in businesses over the last two years has opened them up to new security risks like prompt injections and data poisoning attacks. Recognising this, in November 2023, the U.K.’s National Cyber Security Centre, along with the U.S.’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and international agencies from 16 other countries, released guidelines on the security of AI systems.

Furthermore, 29% of respondents to the BT survey are concerned about AI quality and reliability. Indeed, the 2024 AI Index Report from Stanford University found that “using AI without proper oversight can lead to diminished performance.” For example, there are widespread reports that hallucinations are prevalent in large language models that perform legal tasks.

According to BT, one in five business executives views AI as an existential threat to their business. The AI Index report concluded that AI enables workers to complete tasks more quickly and improves the quality of their output, indicating the business benefits of the technology. However, there is a chance widespread productivity boosts could work the other way, as a recent study from IT support company Auxilion found that 49% of U.K. IT decision makers fear AI will make their companies’ services redundant in three to five years.

SEE: 81% of IT Teams Will Grow Despite AI Adoption, according to a Gartner report

Cyber security, tech transformation and digital skills are all sources of stress

Cyber security

The BT survey found that 32% of business leaders cite cyber security as a source of tech anxiety. This is not surprising, considering an estimated 22% of U.K. businesses experienced a cyber attack in 2023 and the number is anticipated to rise due to the growing accessibility of generative AI.

Cyber security is seen as one of the biggest technological threats to businesses this year. A recent report from Microsoft and Goldsmiths, University of London found that just 13% of U.K. businesses are resilient to cyberattacks, with 48% deemed vulnerable and the remaining 39% facing high risk.

The implications of a successful cyber attack are also widespread, impacting a company financially and reputationally. One study also found that successful ransomware attacks can lead to heart attacks, strokes, PTSD and other physical and mental health issues.

SEE: How Can Businesses Defend Themselves Against Common Cyberthreats?

Tech transformation

A quarter of the company directors and executives surveyed by BT said they worry about executing a successful tech transformation. Such fears are valid; research from McKinsey has ruled that digital transformations only tend to have about a 30% success rate. That being said, 62% of BT’s respondents do recognise that such transformation is critical to the survival of their company, but they remain concerned about the pace of tech evolution.

Keeping up with the latest workplace technologies is a source of stress in the lives of 88% of respondents, while 59% say tech is advancing so quickly they worry about the future of their business. The two sectors that are most concerned about the impact of digital transformation are HR and financial services. The Bank of England recently warned that wide adoption of AI in the financial sector “could pose system-wide financial stability risks”, including cyber threats and market skewing.

SEE: 4 Ways to Boost Digital Transformation Across the UK

Digital skills

The ongoing digital skills shortage in the U.K. was cited by 24% of business leaders as stressful in the BT study. Research by Amazon Web Services in 2023 revealed that more than two thirds of U.K. businesses found it challenging to hire the digital workers they need, and 45% said this was due to a shortage of qualified applicants.

Expert advice for businesses with leaders experiencing tech anxiety

Joshi shared the following advice to businesses where leaders are experiencing tech-related stress:

  • Provide opportunities for business leaders to upskill and train in the necessary tech and digital skills to help them feel more confident in handling new technologies.
  • Create support systems where leaders can share experiences and strategies that can provide emotional relief and practical advice.
  • Prioritize mental health initiatives for both leaders and employees with programs specifically tailored to address tech-related stress for all staff members.
  • Foster a culture that values mental health, upskilling, regular breaks and work-life balance.
  • Leaders should delegate responsibilities and seek support from expert organisations or trusted partners during phases requiring tech transformations. This helps in distributing the workload but also brings in expertise that can ease transitions and reduce anxiety.

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