System overload

In a business world where networking and relationship management can make or break your career, it’s vital to be in the loop. But the need to be available, on-message and responsive at all times could also have a detrimental effect on our mental health.

Research carried out by the University of Staffordshire found that 90% of 18- to 25-year-olds took their mobiles with them everywhere, while 40% “couldn’t cope” without them.

David Sheffield, reader in biological and health psychology at the University of Staffordshire, says: “People displayed similar physical reactions to gambling addicts. And women were more positive about their mobile phones and were showing more addictive behaviours than men.”

But this problem isn’t confined to one age group, gender or country. It’s a global phenomenon. The New York Times recently reported that the ubiquity of mobile phones means that people live in a constant state of “phone vigilance”, and have become particularly sensitive to mobile phone frequencies. And in South Africa, a trend has emerged for people asking to be buried with their mobile phones.

Take control

At work, it’s up to HR and occupational health professionals to set out good practice for using mobile phones and electronic hand-held devices, believes Carole Spiers of stress and wellbeing consultancy the Carole Spiers Group.

“There is the assumption that we should get messages instantly, and respond right away. This is bad for time management, and disrupts the working day,” she says.

Not only that, but excessive use of mobile devices can affect work-life balance and long-term health.

A survey by executive communications consultancy The Aziz Corporation this summer found that two-thirds of UK bosses would take a BlackBerry or other device on holiday to enable them to access work-related e-mails. Almost 90% of this group welcomed the chance to stay in touch with their colleagues and monitor proceedings in their absence, while 12% said that checking e-mails on holiday gave them a welcome break from the family.

Now, US and UK researchers are setting out to prove that employers need to take this seriously, and that technology addiction could be potentially “devastating”.

Damage limitation

Professor Gayle Porter of Rutgers University School of Business and professor Nada Kakabadse of the University of Nottingham are part of a team conducting a study looking at the effect of non-stop work connections via technology on mental health.

“There are costs attached to excessive work due to technology,” says Porter. “Information and communication technology addiction has been treated by policy makers as a kind of elephant in the room – everyone sees it, but no-one wants to acknowledge it directly.”

The results can be extremely serious, she warns. “Employers rightfully provide programmes to help workers with chemical or substance addictions,” she says. “Addiction to technology can be equally damaging to the mental health of the worker.”

While it may not be feasible for employers to regulate how much staff are using technology, Porter suggests that the pressure to stay connected at all times may carry employer responsibility if employees fall ill, and staff can prove a link to overwork.

Spiers believes that staff and their managers need to re-assess what is urgent and what isn’t.

“We managed without such technology five years ago – why can’t we do without it now?” she says. “You have to ask yourself whether people really do need to get hold of you so urgently, or whether we are just addicted to the technology.”

Organisations should have best practice guidelines in place to help staff get this balance right, says Spiers. “There does need to be a protocol in place, so that people are using mobiles and checking messages for certain periods of time, rather than trying to be available 24/7.”

Treating holidays as a total break from work should also be regarded as best practice. “With BlackBerries, you don’t have a real break at all – I’ve seen people using them in restaurants, in cinemas – everywhere. You are never giving your complete attention to anyone,” says Spiers.

Unless staff take a complete break from work, she concludes, they cannot possibly recharge their batteries, and will therefore be less productive. But for the foreseeable future, we can only look forward to more of the same – system overload, 24 hours a day.

News in brief

Call for tax cuts for healthy employers

One of the UK’s biggest health insurers has called on the government to offer tax credits to employers that invest in helping to get people off sick leave and back into work. Norwich Union has followed Axa in calling for more incentives for employers. Meanwhile, the Association of British Insurers is in talks with the Treasury about an end to taxing OH provision as a ‘benefit in kind’.

Time off sick is going down

The number of working days lost to work-related injury and ill health has fallen by 10 million in the past five years. The total for the UK in 2005-06 was 30 million, according to the Health and Safety Commission. Ill health accounted for around 24 million days lost, with stress and musculoskeletal disorders accounting for three-quarters of the total.

Government launches musculoskeletal plan

The government’s Musculoskeletal Services Framework is set to help get staff suffering from bad backs, knees and other conditions back to work. It aims to speed up assessment and referral, provide services close to home, and help staff manage their conditions. It is estimated that up to 30% of visits to GPs are for musculoskeletal disorders.

This month in Occupational Health

  • Will the results of a major national pilot on sickness certification end the HR headache of GP sicknotes?

Personnel Today’s sister publication, Occupational Health, is a monthly magazine dedicated to keeping you on top of occupation health issues. Subscribe online, or call 01444 445566. Out on 1 December


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