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December 20, 2011

Are smartphones adding to workplace stress?

Smartphones are ever present in the workplace, and flow over into the home and worker’s leisure time. How are workers holding up psychologically in the 24/7 smartphone connected workplace?

By Allan Swann

As BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) and BlackBerry connected workplaces have become ubiquitous, concerns over work/life balance and healthy working habits are posing a whole new dilemma for bosses and HR departments.

Dr Carolyn Axtell of the Institute of Work Psychology Sheffield University believes that the lead in to Christmas is highlighting not just bad work practises, but bad social practises. She has been working with iPass on a report called ‘The Well-being of the Mobile Workforce."

"These devices do have a positive role – they are excellent in work ‘dead time’, such as waiting for a delayed flight or commute – but the danger is when this slips over into worker’s leisure time," she says.

This workplace flexibility has great flow on effects for employers, who will see their employees happily putting in extra hours unintentionally, just by having useful smartphone devices, tablets and laptops on them in their own ‘dead time’.

This has a trade off in that employees now expect to be allowed to make personal calls and emails during work time, erasing the traditional 9-5 office timeframe. Consumerisation of the workplace, combined with a flexible working arrangement, has also been proven to build company loyalty, and ensure that staff go ‘above and beyond’, Axtell says.

But the problems stem from the intrusion into the aforementioned ‘off work’ or leisure time, where research is showing that workers are wary of being caught wrong footed and want to always be up to speed with what’s happening – even when they’re not in the office.

This can have flow on effects to personal relationships, such as with the family – Axtell says there are examples of parents checking BlackBerry email at school plays or sport, instead of interacting with their families.

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This is not a unique phenomenon relating to the workplace however, modern smartphone etiquette sees teenager’s texting at the dinner table or in the classroom. They lock themselves in front of Facebook rather than engaging with their friends physically. Aren’t these problems symptomatic of wider society as a whole?

"Yes and no. Professional workers have a history of overworking anyway, but I think the mobile devices exacerbate that. It’s almost too difficult to switch off; access is there all the time. We as a society are addicted to our mobile devices – they are new and exciting after all – and there is that workplace expectation. People expect you to answer an email instantly – even outside work time."

That in turn creates an expectation within the employer’s expectation of workloads – it becomes a vicious cycle. As workers use their own time to work, they redefine the baseline work output in a vicious cycle that can spiral out of control and lead to higher stress and eventually potential nervous breakdowns.

"If staff don’t have the necessary downtime to recover from work, then that will affect their fatigue levels, their physical health and mental health. This obviously isn’t good for the company either long term. Obviously extra workloads still have to be able to occur on occasion – such as when deadlines loom or a crisis occurs at the company. But then this has to be able to scale back down afterward."

Power and control is one of the interesting tenets of this new area Dr Axtell is studying.

"It’s been very interesting. In one sense mobile devices give you a greater flexibility and control over your workplace and workload – which research shows is linked to better wellbeing and lower stress.

"On the other side of it, when that control is being taken away – because your organisation now expects you to work extended hours etcetera, then that’s actually producing the complete opposite effect. You actually feel like you’re less in control, not just of your work, but your life in general."

There is no simple solution or manual for HR departments to follow. Much of it comes back to individual responsibility, and much like the workaholics of previous generations, staff need know their limits and take the appropriate breaks. Organisations also need to make it clear that they are not expecting their staff to work these crazy hours. Dr Axtell wants to see companies walk the talk a little bit more.

"Bosses themselves need to ensure they have some downtime. Even if bosses do come out and say they don’t expect staff to work these extra hours, but then they continue to do so themselves – then it becomes an unspoken expectation. Other staff will do the same, competitiveness takes over and the behaviour will continue."

Key Points from the report:

Many mobile workers are working excessive hours (47 percent of mobile employees work 5-10 extra hours a week and 26 percent work 15-20 extra hours). Extra time on the job can lead to serious repercussions on work-life balance and employee well-being.

  • Worse work-life balance and well-being – Employees working excessive hours are more likely to report difficulty in balancing work and personal commitments. They were also more likely to say that they were more stressed as a result of increased flexibility of when and where they work. This pattern fits with research which has consistently shown that a higher level of demands at work is related to higher stress.
  • Pressure from others – 32% of those working 15-20 extra hours a week said that they connected to technology during vacation because it was expected by management and co-workers. Such organizational pressure is likely to reduce the amount of control mobile workers feel they have over work, and research consistently shows that low control is related to higher stress.
  • Worse Sleep and Recovery – Mobile workers who work an extra 20 hours a week due to flexible work schedules are more likely to work in the middle of the night when they cannot sleep. This suggests that those working extra hours a week are getting poor quality sleep and are not allowing themselves sufficient recovery time.
  • Reduced Performance Gains – While those working longer hours still felt that they were being highly productive and efficient, actual objective performance measures show there might be a leveling off in performance gains at longer hours, or possibly even a drop in performance over time. Research on extended shifts has found decreased reaction times and reduced grammatical reasoning along with increased fatigue and errors after extended periods of working long shifts.


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