Does Hi-Tech Cause Hi-Stress?

By Terry Streather | Mental Health

Nov 08

Yes it can. That’s my view. But I should elaborate: yes, I believe it can if we forget that we are in control.

But are we really?

That’s the ‘stressful’ crux. Yes, in principle we are in control as we can always choose to ignore technology or turn our gadgets off. You know, that little button somewhere near the top of your mobile phone. Press and hold it: for some it’s amazing but for too many, it’s terrifying.

How many people stress over the consequences of turning off their phone? What if you miss something? Or miss out on something! Even the phone won’t let you do it easily. I think all smartphones ask you to confirm that you really do want to turn it off – as if it’s an affront to its dignity or the developers who coded the phone software can’t believe that you’d actually want to disconnect ‘from the world’ (as they probably perceive it).

Is it a culture thing?

Without a doubt, technology enables us to do and achieve so much more. It’s convenient. It saves time. it’s mostly straightforward. But it blurs the boundary between work (on) and home (off). Employers and managers need to be mindful of the culture they create or allow to develop and lead by example.

Yes, we can choose to turn off our phones and ignore the emails arriving on our tablets or laptops. But if that flies in the face of the expectations of our business colleagues (or bosses), that’s where stress is created.

This expectation (whether real or imagined) is a subject in its own right. See my blog from just a couple of months back entitled: ‘Don’t be tempted to work on holiday’, where I talk about ‘FOMO’. That gives a flavour of the issue and the mental health wellbeing potentially at stake.

But the stakes are getting higher – for employers. There have been some landmark legal cases recently. More about those in a moment.

Our European cousins are taking it seriously. Did you know that employers in France must draw up a charter outlining the hours that staff should and should NOT send or respond to emails? The ‘right to disconnect’ – the so-called 'El Khomri law' – came into force in January 2017. It is intended as a response to the ‘always-on’ work culture that tends to pervade businesses in today’s digital age.

The law requires companies of more than 50 employees to draw up a charter of good conduct, outlining the hours when staff should neither send nor respond to emails.

Did I mention that it is being enforced? Earlier this year, Rentokil in France was ordered to pay a former employee €60,000 (£53,000) for failing to respect his “right to disconnect” from his phone and computer outside office hours.

As the Telegraph reports in an article on the case:

the French measure was intended as a response to the so-called ‘always-on’ work culture that has led to a surge in usually unpaid overtime, and in some cases burnout, while also giving employees flexibility to work from outside the office.”

An employee at a meat producer in Ireland was also awarded financial compensation of €7,300 for the ‘right to unplug’, after she successfully argued that she was required to deal with out-of-hours work emails. The extra workload it generated for her exceeded her contract of employment and breached the country’s 1997 Organisation of Working Time act.

Similar cases are likely to come before the UK courts before too long and the impact of decisions could be significant. How many colleagues do you know who have routinely been working additional hours via their mobile devices outside of their normal working day?

When does your working day start?

A study conducted by the University of the West of England looked at 5,000 rail passengers and found that 54% spent their journey into work looking at emails. It was these researches who coined the phrase I used earlier, concluding that smartphones and widespread internet access on journeys had caused a “blurring of boundaries” between life at home and work.

The researchers also concluded that going through your emails on the way to work should actually count as ‘work’. Researcher Dr Juliet Jain, from the university’s Centre for Transport and Society, admitted that there’s a real challenge in deciding what constitutes work, but added that counting the journey as work could “ease commuter pressure on peak hours”. That’s a fascinating perspective.

Then again, we have those individuals who like the ability to be able to ‘catch up’ or stay on top of things while travelling, or at home, if that suits them. It’s certainly a personal decision that can contribute to wellbeing if it’s not made under some kind of duress.

This is illustrated by a couple of responses singled-out in the study mentioned:

“I am a busy mum and I rely on that time,” one commuter told researchers. “It's really important to my sanity that I can get work done on the train...”
“It's dead time in a way, so what it allows me to do is finish stuff and not work in the evenings..."

I've done it myself. Clear uninterrupted thinking time where you can crush it.

Last year, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development published a report stating that a third of employees in the UK were feeling that they could not switch off in their personal time, with 40% checking their work mobile or emails at least five times a day outside of work hours. Many, however, recognised that the technology helped them work more productively and flexibly.

Thought for the Day: Are you working for free?

So what about the value of your work? Or your productivity? Okay, we’ve all endured extended working hours when a deadline is looming, or you need to clear the decks before going on holiday. But what about when it becomes a few hours every night? Or every weekend? That’s just not healthy.

And unfortunately, it's even true to say that working non-stop makes you more productive. In fact, it is the complete opposite! More of that to come in future blogs, with news of a new study that found taking time off work can help you to live longer.

Summing up…

Yes, technology has enabled us to connect in ways never before possible. But being ‘always on’ is damaging us. Technology lets us hot-desk, communicate while mobile and practice agile working, all of which make sound business sense.

Of course, people ultimately have personal responsibility to look after themselves, but it could be made so much easier if the whole team, company or organisation played by the same rules – at all levels.

Here’s a thought... as an employer, do you even know how big of an issue this is in your business?

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About the Author

Terry is Director and Head of Training at Oakwood. He helps clients promote a proactive, rather than reactive approach to both personal safety and the positive mental health of their staff. He has over 12 years teaching experience in these areas, and advises organisations in the development of appropriate risk assessment and policy.