Smartphones: A blessing or a curse?

Research from Institute of Leadership Management yesterday (9 July) highlighted that half of UK managers work at least an extra day of overtime a week.  The report made for some uncomfortable reading: 65% of managers reported feeling under pressure to work extra hours; only 13% felt they had good work-life balance.  Smartphone technology came under attack as a contributor to being overworked, as 20% of the study respondents stated that they spent over an hour each day checking emails on their smartphone and 78% said that their main out of work task was catching up on emails.

Am I surprised by these results?  Honestly, no.  Everyday on my commute to work I see people either on their laptops or their smartphones working.  But what I am concerned about is whether they feel expected to work at these times and whether they understand what the implications of these overtime hours can have on their health and wellbeing.

Research has shown that work is good for your health, however when work becomes excessive, and people feel pressured to work extra hours, this can lead to employee burnout (showing symptoms of exhaustion, lack of interest and irritability), depression, and increased risk of physical illness including heart attacks.  As a result, and not unsurprisingly, work productivity will also suffer, as an employee with poor health and wellbeing may be unable to concentrate on a task that they have been allocated to complete, they may take longer to finish tasks, and what they produce may be of lesser quality than that of a healthy employee.  These employees many also be less likely to cope with changes in the workplace and keep up with the pace of work.  Organisational productivity is also affected by sickness absence, or employees attending work when they are unfit to do so (this is presenteeism, and not, as has sometimes been reported, an example of employee engagement).  The latest ONS figures report that mental health conditions (such as stress, anxiety and depression) account for 15.2 million days of sickness absence.  If the worst performing organisations reduced their sickness absence levels to that of the best performers then this would lead to 54 million fewer days lost and savings of £5.4 billion per annum (Vaughan-Jones & Barham, Healthy Work: Evidence into Action, 2010).

So what can be done?  A few years ago Volkswagen took steps to improve the work-life balance of their staff by turning off Blackberry email after work hours, as a result of complaints from staff that their work and home lives were becoming blurred.  Indeed, earlier this year, reports indicated that the French were going to attempt to disconnect from work emails after 6 o’clock to re-establish a sense of work-life balance.  Although, very interesting (and very comment-provoking) initiatives, the blame seems to be inherently on the smartphone technology and not the people sending the emails!

So are smartphones all bad?

I would have to argue that they are not.  In some cases, smartphones are extremely valuable to the world of work and organisational productivity.  With the new right to request flexible work legislation that was introduced at the end of June, having email contact when away from the office if you have to work at home, or have a more mobile office means that the organisation, the employee and the customer can benefit and productivity can be maintained.  Technology can help a range of individuals, including those who have chronic conditions or illnesses which make it more difficult for them to work in an office environment, or those who are phasing their return to work after a period of long-term sick leave.  And for people who are asked to work on-call, or may have to work across different time zones, smartphone technology has made working a lot easier.

However, it is true that using smartphones can lead to some unhealthy behaviours as reported in the article, including the obsessive checking and sending of emails out-of-hours.  This is where I think that organisations and managers at all levels need to set out clearly what they expect from their employees.  If there is the expectation that any employee with a smartphone can be contacted at all times and, crucially, are expected to respond, then this form of technology becomes unhealthy. Such policies mean people feel pressured to work after hours, reducing their work-life balance and increasing their stress.  However, for organisations who wish to develop cultures of health and wellbeing, where there is an understanding of the need for a healthy work-life balance, there may not be such expectations. For organisations where there is the expectation that individuals may have to work overtime on occasion, there is a need to develop ‘good work’ practices, this could therefore mean that employers should be prepared to offer flexible work practices, or time off in lieu, to prevent the increased risk of stressed employees and burnout.

The use of smartphones highlights the conflict/dichotomy between protecting a healthy work-life balance and working flexibly.  However, if employee health and wellbeing is a central pillar of how an organisation works, using technology smartly can become a potentially beneficial tool in moving towards a more flexible and productive workplace.