Wearable technology: what are the mental health implications?

wearable technology

Despite the many professional and lifestyle benefits associated with wearable technology, employers need to consider its potential to disrupt employees’ lives and adversely affect mental health, says Mandy Rutter.

Now that wearable technology has gone mainstream, with Apple releasing a watch capable of physically alerting us to incoming messages and voicemails, it is also important to consider the extent to which this could increase stress levels and anxiety.

While it can easily be argued that wearable technology simply lets us do familiar things more quickly and conveniently than rooting around for our phone every time it bleeps, we have to bear in mind that our mobile devices have already become incredibly invasive. The average smartphone user unlocks their phone 110 times a day, according to knowyourmobile.com, a statistic that is certain to increase once such technology becomes constantly attached to our bodies.

We currently spend 47% of our time thinking about something other than what we are doing (Killingsworth MA, Gilbert DT, 2010), and this is making us unhappy. This is due in no small part to technology’s knack of distracting us from properly experiencing those things that actually make us happy, such as being really engaged in a conversation, appreciating a view, feeling the sun on our face, or relishing the food we are eating, instead of just gulping it down in front of a computer screen.

As other cultures have advocated for centuries, it turns out that we are most relaxed and happy when we allow ourselves to live in the “here and now” and fully engage in the task at hand. But this will become increasingly difficult if we physically connect ourselves to interruptions from the outside world by putting mobile devices onto our bodies or even into our clothes (Google has already found a way of building computers into clothing, and envisages a world where we pick clothes for their technological functionality as much as for their style or colour).

Staying connected

The pace at which technology is moving – doubling in functionality and halving in price every two years, according to the principle of Moore’s Law (the observation made by Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel) – is so fast that our psychological processes and HR policies cannot keep up.

Debates about how best to separate work and life have become all but redundant. The way in which technology now follows us around means that it is no longer possible to draw a line between them. The new challenge is not about finding the willpower to resist checking or responding to emails from work while at home or on holiday, but developing the ability to quickly dip in and out of work and address urgent tasks without reading and responding to everything else.

If we can do this, then the new era of constant connectivity that we are entering could be a good thing, revolutionising traditional working patterns and opening up more opportunities for remote working, enabling employees to fit work around their lives instead of life around their work. For example, working parents could leave the office early to have dinner with their families, before picking up work again later in the evening. The next generation of graduates, already used to the freedoms and flexibility
afforded by university life, might realise the potential to work whenever and wherever they want, making the idea of a fixed working day and rush hour a thing of the past.

The very real risk, of course, is that instead of using greater access to work more flexibly and productively, the treadmill effect simply continues, with wearable technology further lengthening and intensifying the working day, turning the current mental health problem into a mental health crisis.

Wearable technology proactive measures

To prevent a new era of connected working from diminishing our mental health even further, employers will need to do more to monitor the extent to which technology-related health problems, such as email addiction, already exist across the workforce. They will need to educate employees about the potentially addictive side effects of using wearable technology for work by creating resources and development workshops to alert employees to the risks and ways to reduce this.

Rather than allowing negative working patterns to evolve of their own accord, employers should also strive to outline the capacity in which email is to be used and advise on suitable homeworking hours and weekend access. Instead of trying to prescribe exact working patterns, which would require swimming against the strong tide of technological advancement, employers would be better advised to put forward options for what healthy technology use looks like, so that employees can select the approach that works best for them.

Critical to all this is educating employees on how to take a step back from the highly addictive and invasive nature of email, to ensure that incoming messages do not continually distract and disrupt them.

Given how far removed current ways of working are from those of only five years ago, it would be unfair to expect employees to make this leap by themselves. Employers are increasingly offering resilience training or mindfulness as part of ongoing learning and development initiatives. These typically educate people in staying mentally and physically healthy under the new pressures of working in a digital era, and allow them to stay focused on what they are doing – at work, rest or play – even though the technology attached to them might be compelling them to do otherwise.

Reference

Killingsworth MA, Gilbert DT (2010). “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind”. Science, November 2010, vol.330, no.6006, p.932.

About Mandy Rutter

Mandy Rutter is head of resilience services and trauma management at psychological wellbeing consultancy Validium.
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