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Barely a week passes without another study raising concerns about our compulsive use of smartphones and social media.

Ofcom, the UK communications regulator, found that two-fifths of adults looked at their phones within five minutes of waking up — rising to almost two-thirds for those under 35. More than half said their devices interrupted face-to-face conversations with friends and family. The Pew Research Center, a US think-tank, reported that a quarter of American adults were “almost constantly” online.

About half of respondents to the latest edition of a long-running UK survey from the consultancy Deloitte admitted they had a constant need to check their phone. So how is this affecting business life?

There is now widespread acceptance that the burden of emails, which continue to flood into inboxes even after individuals have finished work, could have negative effects on mental health.

Indeed, it was the mass adoption of email on mobiles that began the modern era of “technostress,” says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Manchester Business School.

Cooper co-chairs the National Forum for Health and Wellbeing at Work, which brings together large employers such as BT, BP and Shell with government, health and social media representatives to “reduce the stress levels and increase productivity of UK plc”.

Constantly checking our devices is “causing people to be overloaded,” he says. “It diverts them away from their job, and engages them when they should be resting at night, at weekends, and they’re not interacting with their families as much.”

© Sarah Hanson

Paul McLaren, a psychiatrist at the Priory Hospital in Kent, concurs. “The ability to access email from anywhere, from the toilet to the top of a mountain, makes it hard for people who struggle with boundaries. Weekend ‘down time’ and holidays get invaded by the incoming flow. The flashing light on the phone or incoming alert can become so integral to our sensory experience that we can feel discomfort without them.”

Richard MacKinnon, an occupational psychologist and managing director of WorkLifePsych, which provides occupational psychology support, takes a similar view. “Executives I work with list email as one of their big stress points at work. They’re there to create and implement strategy and yet here they are, at eight, nine, 10 o’clock at night emptying their inbox, only for it to refill the next day.”

France has recognised the problem, introducing a law guaranteeing employees the right to “disconnect” after they leave the workplace. And at corporate level, some big German companies have made attempts to tackle the overload. Daimler automatically deletes employees’ emails while they are on vacation and Volkswagen blocks them out of hours — although they are in workers’ inbox when they return to work.

Legislation is, however, not the answer, argues MacKinnon. “As soon as you create a law, the first thing people do is look for a loophole. It’s like whack-a-mole,” he says. Strict rules also prevent the flexibility that some workers prefer, says Cooper.

Cooper’s forum has instead produced guidelines to help companies instil a balance between wellbeing and the benefits of being connected. These include respecting colleagues’ rest-time, clear leadership from management in setting behavioural norms, discouraging “reply-all” emails, and regular reminders of the power of switching off through, for example, “no-email Fridays”.

Change must come from the top, says David D’Souza, membership director for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. He says: “Leaders need to be aware of the fact that responding to an email at 10 o’clock on a Saturday night sends out a clear message to the organisation: the most senior people here, the people who are most successful, are the ones that just don’t stop. That can have severe health ramifications.”

McLaren adds: “Most employers will have policies which discourage the use of personal or company devices for personal use during work hours but, if the addiction is strong enough, then people will still do it. Most people will glance at text messages or Facebook during the working day, and the line between personal communication time and work time becomes blurred.”

These blurred lines may be one reason that compulsive use of social media has yet to show up as a big issue for employers. Business worries have until now focused on the risks to a company’s reputation from a misjudged tweet or status update rather than an employee’s mental health.

Although not yet considered to be as harmful as addictions to online gambling, gaming or pornography, concern is nevertheless growing about social media’s effect on our working lives.

Susan Hepburn, a London-based therapist and addiction expert, says there has been a “significant rise in individuals coming to me regarding addictions to social media — especially over the past eight to 10 years. Some have even lost their job as a result.”

The problem is almost certainly under-reported. “Social media is so ingrained now in most people’s lives that they would probably not consider mentioning it,” says McLaren.

But while tools such as Apple’s Screen Time feature — which allows users to set limits on how much time they spend on apps — acknowledge the problem of excessive use, MacKinnon and D’Souza think social media is unlikely to be responsible for falling productivity. “People using Facebook at their workstation is obviously a time-drainer but, historically, we all found ways to waste time at work,” says D’Souza.

Hepburn, however, thinks that because social media usage is still below most companies’ radars, it could become a problem. “Many employers do not implement strict or clear rules regarding the use of social media at work and so with the absence of a threat or a severe consequence, many [employees] believe it is OK to have a quick glance at their social media channels. Unfortunately, this can then spiral into a more severe addiction.”

Social media usage at work would be very difficult to control. Companies increasingly use the same tools for business, such as Twitter and Facebook, as their workers do for social reasons, and those in sectors such as marketing are actively encouraged to develop their profiles.

But employers need to be alert to potential problems among their workers, says McLaren. “Look at productivity. Is their performance falling off? Are they doing what they need to? Are they realising their potential? Managers can see phone use and texting in open plan offices. Is someone distracted because they are getting ‘buzzed’ or ‘bleeped’ throughout the working day? Are they paying more attention to their phone than the work in front of them?”

Companies should be explicit, he says. “Tell employees when to and when not to access email. Tell employees to protect their downtime. Make sure senior managers set an example. As with other mental health issues, it’s about promoting awareness and making sure that if employees get into difficulties then they can ask for help.”

Hepburn suggests simple solutions including making sure employees have “offline periods throughout the day, whether through organised team meetings, group lunches or providing lunchtime activities such as yoga — to get employees to switch off completely and take a step back from the continual stream of online media.”

However, the bigger issue is that work practices have yet to adjust to a new age, says Lesley Giles, director of the Work Foundation employment think-tank. “Technologies are such a disruptive force in workplaces. They’re flipping on the head the way we do certain things,” she says. “The challenge for businesses is that they really have to embrace that change and go with it because the boundaries are blurring between what is work and what isn’t work.”

Both MacKinnon and Cooper think that if employers notice staff are using social media excessively, then work practices need to be examined.

“It could be boredom, it could be anxiety, it could be uncertainty of what to do next, and it could simply be a feeling of being overwhelmed by workload,” says MacKinnon.

“What’s making employees want to use social media during work time?” asks Cooper. “There is a reason for it. Maybe they’re not stretched, not properly managed, not given adequate objectives. So don’t blame the social media; try to unwrap why they’re doing it.”

The endless quest for social validation

Working in public relations, Jennifer Morris [not her real name] says she knows she spends too much time on her phone and social media. Not only does she manage Facebook and Twitter pages at work, she is a micro-influencer on Instagram with her own personal brand, writes Jennifer Bissell-Linsk.

“I try to be mindful but it’s so hard.” Morris says “With all the notifications of new content and messages, it can be difficult to resist.”

“You get sucked into the scroll and, before you know it, you can be sitting on your bed for 45 minutes doing absolutely nothing,” she says. “It’s like a drug in a sense.”

In fact, the average adult worldwide last year spent 5.9 hours a day with digital media, of which 3.3 hours were on mobile devices, according to a Kleiner Perkins Internet Trends report.

Globally, social media uses up an average of 2.3 hours per day, up from 1.5 hours five years ago, according to the Kleiner Perkins report.

For some internet users, however, social media results in much higher than average usage. Despite being conscious of news stories about social media’s negative effects, Morris says she feels the urge to grab her phone every few minutes, even when she is supposed to be busy at work.

Some of the inventors of social media platforms have spoken about their addictive nature. As Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook, described it last year: “It’s a social-validation feedback loop . . . you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”

Even knowing this, when Morris opens up the settings on her iPhone to actually see how much time she is spending on it, she is shocked.

“No, no, no, no! That’s not happening,” she says. “The weekly total — that’s crazy — the weekly total is 32 hours and 26 minutes and counting . . . How is that? . . . That’s totally absurd.”

She is not alone, Sam Bleiberg, another millennial who works in public relations, says he thinks he has a problem.

“I wouldn’t say that I’m necessarily addicted to the point where I would have an extreme issue of willpower,” he says.

“To me, what’s indicative is just that reflexive urge . . . checking a few times an hour when you really don’t need to be.”

He says he became aware it was a problem about two years ago when he noticed he could not help but check his phone while watching a film with his family. Similarly, he feels he can no longer read a book without checking for notifications in between chapters.

“That made me wonder, well, I used to just be able to read for an hour or two without doing anything else, why do I now need to break my concentration?” he says. “I write a decent amount for work and I think, especially if I’m writing longer form things, it makes it harder to stay focused and be as efficient, if I’m constantly picking up my phone, even just if I look at it for 10 seconds.”

At work, Morris also says she has found herself in trouble once in a meeting.

“That was a wake-up call for me,” she says. “I like to dedicate my attention to whomever is speaking, but then here I am on a phone in a meeting and I can’t even tell you how long I was on my phone for because I was completely distracted.

“I do think social media at work is fine when you need a break,” she adds.

“The problem lies in that addiction: we have trouble limiting that time.”

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