Is the proliferation of technology making us unhealthy? Are we working more, producing less, and spending more time being sick?
Because early predictions that technology would lead to increased productivity (and a lighter work week) were clearly way off the mark– we are working just as much (40 hours per week) as we did in the 1970s, but we have far less leisure time.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to pan out.
So what’s really behind this and what kind of effect is technology use (and over-use) having on the workforce? And is there a counter argument that says tech has in fact not boosted employee stress levels?
Yes, mobile devices let us connect with the office, anytime, anywhere. This in turn forces us to work longer hours– even if it’s from the family dinner table.
A recent report from consumer trend analyst, Nielsen, shows that three-quarters (78%) of UAE residents own a smartphone. During a study by research firm, Dscout, users tapped, swiped and clicked their smartphones a colossal 2,500 times per day. In the UAE, internet use has more than doubled over the last decade, with 92% of the entire country’s population online today. Global market research firm, The Radicati Group, estimates that one-third of the worldwide population will be using email by 2019, with many of us having more than one account.
So is this good or bad?
Because it’s important to note that there is a disconnect between what employers and employees consider to be the main causes of stress. According to the Willis Towers Watson Staying@Work Survey, on the one hand, employers believe that technology is a cause of employee stress (the issue of being ‘always on’ 24/7 due to modern devices). Yet, when employees were asked about this, they did not cite technology as a primary cause of stress. From their view, it simply enabled them to work when and where they want.
That being said, there are some key areas –notably sleep, multitasking, and lack of movement during the day– which heavy use of tech does impact.
Problems with sleep
A study by the University of Rhode Island found that almost half of us admit waking up to answer text messages and phone calls. Once we start doing that during our normal sleep cycle, the quality of our sleep decreases – and the study noted that people can then develop symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Why is this so crucial? Scientific journal PNAS found that the use of light-emitting electronic devices (laptops, smartphones and e-readers) before bedtime prolongs the time it takes to fall asleep and suppresses levels of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin, which reduces alertness the following morning.
The result: employees disengaged at work the next day.
We now skim-read more, move through documents with superficial interest and prefer to juggle multiple activities. What we’re describing here is an addiction. The internet acts as the perfect addictive feedback system, each click releasing the pleasure stimulus, dopamine. This is a worry, as more than two-thirds (71%) of residents in the UAE admit to being addicted to their smartphone, according to research by dmg events Middle East (via the Arabian Gazette).
Such addiction leaves us easily distracted, and with that comes a ‘recovery’ time. But phones aren’t the only culprit. One US report claims that we are interrupted more than 100 times a day as a result of checking email. After each loss of concentration, we need more than one minute to refocus and resume work. This strips around 1.5 hours’ from work productivity every single day.
Email overload can leave workers mentally exhausted as they juggle priorities. One US study of people using their mobiles to check work emails found that the greater their addiction, the greater their perceived workload and stress, which reduced their organizational commitment. The addiction also created a conflict between work, technology and their family life.
The causes of employee stress may be an issue of perception (employees believing that it’s both how/if they’re rewarded at work –as well as company culture– which is actually the cause of stress), but there is no denying one fact: People sit for long periods of time. Despite all the health apps and activity monitoring watches, our love of technology is not great for movement– its use is predominantly a sedentary activity.
We hear a lot that “sitting is the new smoking.” The NCBI, meanwhile, reports that, in the US, prolonged sitting takes up 70% of the average person’s day, causing fewer muscle contractions and raised blood glucose levels.
Close computer and smartphone use also induce us to stare. This strain on the eyes leads to headaches, double vision, dry eye and fatigue– a set of symptoms now with their own name: Computer Vision Syndrome. Studies in the US find up to 90% of computer users report some of these symptoms, which are aggravated by poor lighting, improper seating positions and screen glare.
Talking of seating position, computers frequently leave users hunched, while phones cause “text neck.” Such poor posture is raising levels of chronic back pain.
Tackling the problem head-on
In Germany, to avoid email-overload after vacation, car manufacturer Daimler has implemented a policy allowing employees to set software to automatically delete incoming emails while they’re away. The program tells the sender that the email will be deleted, while offering the contact details of another employee for pressing matters.
In 2011, in an effort to help employees keep their work and home lives separate, Volkswagen agreed to stop sending employee emails to its Blackberry servers outside of some German workers’ shifts, with a 30-minute buffer. Meanwhile, in 2014 the German employment minister commissioned a report into the viability of an “anti-stress law” which would ban companies from contacting employees outside of work hours. The Economist reports that, in the same year, a federation of employers and unions in France created a labor agreement to give employees the right to completely disconnect after 13 hours of work per day.
Looking ahead: your workforce and tech
There’s no doubt technology has made things easier, and allowed businesses to become more productive. And as we have seen, the Willis Towers Watson survey of employee attitudes on the subject did indicate that employees actually didn’t feel any negative impact on their health from tech, and don’t consider it to be a cause of stress.
But clearly the sedentary lifestyle –whether we blame tech or not– is not something that is helping any workforce. So last year in the UAE, maritime company DP World started offering its employees a year-long “Get fit for 60” program to encourage them away from their desks and into circuit-based fitness classes. The workers then earn points for each session, which can be spent at local retailers. Pharma giant GSK has taken a more holistic approach, employing a team to monitor mental and musculoskeletal health, part of which involves ergonomics training and a back care program. It’s an issue that will require further investigation over time.