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Worn out by technology?

13 July 2015

Worn out by technology?

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Despite the many professional and lifestyle benefits associated with wearable technology, employers need to consider its potential to disrupt employees’ lives, to avoid adversely affecting mental health. Now that Apple is taking wearable technology into the mainstream, with a watch capable of physically alerting us to incoming texts, messages and voicemails, it’s important to consider the extent to which this could increase stress and anxiety levels.

While it can easily be argued that wearable technology simply lets us do familiar things more quickly and conveniently, rather than rooting around for our phone every time it bleeps, we have to bear in mind that our mobile devices have already become incredibly invasive. The average smart phone user now unlocks their phone 110 times a day1, a statistic that’s certain to increase once our mobile devices become constantly attached.

Technology can be an unhealthy distraction, disrupting our ability to experience those things that actually make us happy, such as being really engaged in a conversation, appreciating a view, feeling the sun on our face, or relishing the food we’re eating, instead of just gulping it down in front of a computer screen - As well as being able to concentrate on priorities when at work.

Living in the moment will become increasingly difficult if we physically connect ourselves to interruptions from the outside world by putting mobile devices onto our bodies or even into our clothes - Google has already found a way of building computers into clothing, and envisages a world where we pick clothes for their technological functionality as much as their style or colour.

Staying constantly connected

The pace at which technology is moving - doubling in functionality and halving in price every two years2 – is so fast, that our psychological processes and HR policies can’t keep up.

Debates about how best to separate work and life have become all but redundant. The way in which technology can now follow us around means it’s no longer possible to draw a line between the two. The new psychological challenge isn’t about finding the willpower to resist checking or responding to emails from work while at home or on holiday, but rather developing the ability to quickly dip in and out of work, to address urgent tasks, without falling into the trap of reading and responding to everything else.

If we can do this, then the new era of constant connectedness we’re entering could be a good thing, revolutionising traditional working patterns and opening up more opportunities for remote working - enabling employees to fit work around their lives, instead of life around their work. For example, working parents could leave work early to have dinner with their families, before picking up work again later in the evening. The next generation of graduates, already used to the freedoms and flexibility afforded by university life, might realise the potential to work whenever and wherever they want, making the idea of a fixed working day and rush hour a thing of the past.

The very real risk, of course, is that instead of using greater access to work more flexibly and productively, the treadmill effect simply continues, with wearable technology further lengthening and intensifying the working day, turning the current mental health problem into a mental health crisis.

Proactive measures

To prevent a new era of connected working from diminishing our mental health even further, employers will need to do more to monitor the extent to which technology-related health problems, such as email addiction, already exist across the workforce. We then need to educate employees about the potentially addictive side-effects of using wearable technology for work by creating resources and development workshops to alert them to the risks and to suggest ways to reduce these.

Rather than allowing negative working patterns to evolve of their own accord, employers should also strive to outline the capacity in which email is to be used and advise on suitable home-working patterns and weekend access. This is instead of trying to prescribe exact working patterns, which would require swimming against the strong tide of technological advancement, and employers would be better advised to put forward various options for what healthy technology use looks like, so that employees can select the approach that works best for them.

Critical to all this is educating employees on how to take a step back from the highly addictive and invasive nature of email and texting, to ensure that the technology doesn’t continually distract and disrupt them.

Given how far removed current ways of working are from those of only five years ago, it would be unfair to expect employees to make this leap by themselves. Employers are increasingly offering resilience training or mindfulness as part of ongoing learning and development initiatives. These typically educate people about staying mentally and physically healthy under the new pressures of working in a digital era, allowing them to stay focused on what they’re doing – at work, rest or play – even though the technology attached to them might be compelling them to do otherwise.

'Staying Healthy in a Digital Era Report' – Click here to get the insights on the latest academic thinking on tackling technostress, read great case study from Oracle and find out how to avoid becoming 'anxiously attached' and stay healthy in a digital era.

1. The history of mobile phones, knowyourmobile.com

2. Moore’s Law