Are smartphones an employer-led addiction?
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Are smartphones an employer-led addiction?

Despite how addicted I am to my work, there’s one compulsion I have yet to adopt: I’ve refused to keep my email account connected to my smartphone, although I once did.

It was back in the Blackberry days when a pulsing red light would alert fellow addicts to an incoming message. Its absence for a minute or two would prompt a neurotic logging-in process just in case there was a disconnection of some sort.

 Hyper-connectivity is everywhere, especially at work.

Hyper-connectivity is everywhere, especially at work. Credit:Rawpixel for Pexels

I realised I had to disable that feature when, on the bus one day, I found myself restricting my inbox-checking to, oh, only every time the bus stopped. Just every stop or so. Obviously not very restricting at all and clearly an unhealthy way to operate.

It’s an obsession known as hyper-connectivity which, in contrast to its opposite, hypo-connectivity, attracts consequences such as the neglect of relationships, burnout, distraction from bigger priorities and the risk of becoming a mind-numbingly boring person with whom no one wants to hang out.

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Hyper-connectivity is everywhere. You can see it on public transport when people, with their eyes glued to their handset, board trains without watching for the gap. It’s there on the street as a generation of posture-related issues emerge among a population whose heads are perpetually bowed as they stroll on the sidewalk, bumping into strangers. And it’s most stark on street corners as councils install safety measures to prevent people killing themselves (and others) while obliviously crossing the road.

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The problem becomes most acute when the smartphone has been issued by an employer. Because then there’s an implicit expectation the employee should always be contactable, perhaps even outside business hours, even though that’s rarely made explicit in a formal contract. They’re the findings, at least, of research published earlier this year by scholars at the University of Auckland.

The researchers drew from a large body of prior work – such as findings that revealed the loss of a smartphone was perceived by many as akin to losing a limb – to investigate the work-related consequences of smartphone usage, specifically when it’s used as part of the job.

Almost everyone they interviewed agreed there’s an expectation from management that they constantly remain connected to their smartphone, thereby negatively affecting their work/life balance. As this telco worker explains: “It is not a company requirement … They just expect you to. In a way, receiving a company phone means you are always obliged to call back.”

Another employee, this time from the public sector, put it this way: “I think there is the implied obligation that we have to be contactable almost round the clock. That has never been said but I think some people might expect us to respond to emails after hours.”

And so they even keep the phone switched on beside the bed: “I am expected to be connected in case there’s an issue that must be solved. The mobile has to be on all the time even during the night.”

It’s more than just the crude incursion into an employee’s personal space. It’s also about the relationship between workers and managers, which ends up damaged because people assume their bosses expect constant connectivity despite that assumption being disproven in this study. In reality, only half of managers held such expectations, although granted, that’s still a lot.

So why don’t employees just request permission to get rid of the damn thing?

Because deep down they still want it. “I guess it would be a mixed blessing,” said a team member who was asked how she’d feel if the smartphone were taken away. “On the one hand, I like all the things it does but on the other hand I would not be working all the time.”

Hence why the phenomenon is commonly referred to as techno-stress.

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