Smartphone stress: Are you a victim of 'always on' culture?
- 14 August 2014
- From the section Business
You're on holiday but surreptitiously check your work emails the moment you wake up.
You get anxious if there's no wi-fi in the hotel or mobile phone signal up the mountain.
You fret if your phone is getting low on power, and you secretly worry things will go wrong at work if you're not there.
These are the typical signs of "always on" stress induced by smartphone addiction.
For some people, portable connected devices have liberated them from the constraints of the nine-to-five. Flexible working has given them more autonomy over their working lives and enabled them to spend more time with their friends and families.
For many others though, smartphones have become tyrants in our pockets, never allowing us to switch off, relax and recharge our batteries.
And a number of commentators are becoming increasingly concerned about the syndrome.
Pittsburgh-based developer Kevin Holesh was so worried about how much he was ignoring his family and friends in favour of his iPhone he developed an app - Moment - to monitor his usage.
The app enables users to see how much time they're spending on the device and set up warnings if self-imposed usage limits are breached.
"Moment's goal is to promote balance in your life," his website explains. "Some time on your phone, some time off of it enjoying your loving family and friends around you."
And some employers are acknowledging that getting the work-life balance right isn't so easy. We need help.
For example, German car maker Daimler recently introduced an email auto-delete option for its holidaying employees, in recognition that they may not have the willpower to switch off from work.
Dr Christine Grant, an occupational psychologist at Coventry University's Centre for Research in Psychology, Behaviour and Achievement, told the BBC: "The negative impacts of this 'always on' culture are that your mind is never resting, you're not giving your body time to recover, so you're always stressed.
"And the more tired and stressed we get, the more mistakes we make. Physical and mental health can suffer."
The fact that we can stay connected to the workplace wherever we are in the world is feeding deep-seated insecurities, she argues.
"There is a massive anxiety about relinquishing control," she says. "In my research I found a number of people who were burnt out because they were travelling with technology all the time, no matter what time zone they were in."
Women in particular were susceptible to doing a full day in the office, coming home to make tea and look after the kids, then putting in a late shift before going to bed.
"This triple shifting can have quite an impact on health," says Dr Grant.
Dr Alasdair Emslie, president of the Society of Occupational Medicine, agrees, saying: "Every year about 400,000 people in the UK report work-related stress at a level they believe is making them ill.
"Changes in technology are one contributory factor, particularly if this makes employees feel they are unable to cope with increased demands or have less control in handling their workload."
According to telecoms regulator Ofcom, 61% of UK adults now say they own a smartphone, while household take-up of tablet computers has almost doubled over the past year to 44%.
Since 2010 our daily total media consumption has risen from 8 hours 48 minutes to more than 11 hours, says Ofcom, largely thanks to the rise of smartphones.
And as the number of connected smartphones is increasing, so is the amount of data at our disposal.
This is leading to a sort of decision paralysis, argues Michael Rendell, partner for consulting firm PwC's global human capital business.
"It is creating more stress in the workplace because people are having to embrace a broader range of data and communications and it's difficult to manage them all.
"It actually makes it more difficult to make decisions and many are becoming less productive because they're overwhelmed by it all and feel they can never escape the office."
PwC's report, The Future of Work - a journey to 2022, involved interviews with 50,000 workers around the world.
According to Mr Rendell, "the UK workforce is not more productive than it was even though we have all this connectivity and all this data".
Tim Forer, a barrister with employment law specialist Blake Morgan, agrees, saying: "Why haven't wages kept up with inflation? It's because we have more people doing less work.
"We think checking emails is work when a lot of the time it isn't productive work."
The blurring of the line dividing work and leisure brought about by technology isn't just a health and safety issue for employees, however.
There are potentially serious consequences for companies, too.
"Under the European Working Time Directive there is a 48-hour limit to the working week and you're meant to have an 11-hour break every 24-hour period," says Mr Forer.
"But if you're checking texts and emails first thing in the morning and last thing at night, it's pretty easy to bust those limits.
"This jeopardises companies' duty of care towards their employees," he argues.
And never having down-time also puts extra pressure on corporate IT departments, believes SolarWinds, an IT management software company.
Staff are more reliant on work apps but becoming increasingly intolerant when things go wrong.
According to its research more than half of workers feel they are expected to work faster and hit deadlines sooner as a result of this new connectedness, while nearly half believe their employers now expect them to be available any time, anywhere.
Managing the load
Of course, mobile phone and other technology companies argue that mobile connectivity is entirely beneficial, not harmful, and many younger people, office workers, and self-employed would agree.
"Smartphones and tablets... enable agile and flexible working which benefits both employers and employees alike," says Graham Long, vice president of enterprise business team at Samsung UK.
While Chris Kozup, senior director at Aruba Networks says: "From a study we have conducted with The Future Laboratory, we found that this idea of being 'always on' and connected is actually helping workers manage their work/life balance."
The key is making this new flexibility work for you and being disciplined about your smartphone usage.
So if you're getting ready to hit the beach, set up those "out of office" email alerts, switch off your phone and put it out of reach when you go to bed, and take to heart Dr Grant's advice: "You're rarely the only who can resolve an issue."