Modern Technology: Is Excessive Connectivity Causing a Disconnect?
By Darlene E. Arroyo, RN, BS, COHN-S
Manager, North America Disability Programs
Johnson & Johnson
Smartphones, tablets, laptops, even watches that can check email — modern technology keeps us connected to the workplace 24/7. These amazing technologies give us avenues to work faster, retrieve information more conveniently, and stay connected to our peers around the world day or night. We can all agree that the use of technology has great benefits. But can excessive connectivity lead to stress and work/life imbalance?
According to a recent survey by Bank of America, nearly three-quarters of respondents (71%) sleep with, or next to, their mobile phones; younger Millennials are most likely to sleep with their smartphone on their bed (34%).1 According to a study by the American Psychological Association, more than half of working adults said they check their messages at least once a day on weekends (54%), before or after hours on work days (52%), and even when home sick (54%) or on vacation (44%).2 While this may increase productivity, too much connectivity can lead to stress, fatigue and insomnia. Research has shown that business smartphone usage disrupts sleep and reduces workers’ energy the next day,3 not to mention physical effects such as eye strain, or neck and back pain.
Technology can be valuable and improve productivity when utilized wisely. But employees off work or returning to work from a medical leave are at risk for a relapse of symptoms if they do not know how to disconnect. An information technology (IT) employee out on medical leave for a non-work mental health issue states “I’m unable to get a full night’s sleep as my cell phone rings throughout the night.” A sales representative states “I feel an obligation to stay connected in order to meet my quota and not let down the team.” Other employees have concerns they will be replaced if they don’t keep up with their work, even though their manager fully supports their absence.
IT employees are prone to develop health problems due to the continuous physical and mental stress of their work.4 Let’s use the example of an IT employee who takes a medical leave for depression. The employee informs the healthcare provider and case manager about two big stressors: a very demanding job, and raising a young child alone. These responsibilities generate fatigue and depression, but the employee is anxious about being out on leave and not being able to access work email.
We have developed many best practices at Johnson & Johnson that we apply to cases like this. First, we confirm the employee understands the importance of complying with the treatment plan (rest, medication, psychotherapy, etc.), and the need to avoid work duties including email and voicemail. We discuss any concerns the employee may have with temporarily disconnecting from work. In addition, without divulging a diagnosis, we inform the manager that the employee is on a leave and will be unable to perform job duties until medical clearance is received for modified or full duty work. Once the employee and manager have a clear understanding of the work restraints, employees usually have less anxiety about work and can concentrate on their recovery. The case manager may need to reiterate this to employees, as employees tend to feel guilty if they are unable to connect to work.
Next, we provide the employee with resources to utilize while on leave or during RTW. In our organization, when an employee reports a disability we provide a brochure of company resources such as the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which offers six free sessions and will then identify any need for ongoing support, Work/Life Services, and Occupational Health Services. We encourage the use of these resources throughout the case management process and upon return to work.
Moving forward, we keep an open line of communication and contact the employee frequently to monitor progress. We want to provide frequent encouragement, which is a need of individuals who are experiencing mental health issues. Frequent contact helps us to quickly identify and discuss concerns or red flags with healthcare providers as early as possible.
As the case progresses and symptoms improve, we discuss a gradual return-to-work (RTW) plan with the employee, healthcare provider, and manager. We include a job analysis to help the healthcare provider understand the essential job functions. To support workplace flexibility we gradually increase work hours and/or duties to allow the employee to integrate back into the workplace with lower risk of a relapse; this is critical for a successful outcome in virtually all cases.
Once employees return to work, they can use coping strategies, including these best practices to reduce technology burnout:
- Reach out or continue to speak with our company EAP professional, or the employee’s private psychotherapist. Discuss a plan to control communication overload.
- Discuss concerns with the manager, and if possible, set boundaries for communication with the employee’s peers and external associates. For example, perhaps an on-call schedule or a back-up plan can be instituted for after work hours, as well as weekend and vacation coverage.
- Have employees take breaks from their devices. Instead of eating lunch at their desk answering emails or voicemail, they should do stretching exercises, meditate, take a walk, or eat in the cafeteria or nearby restaurant. This will allow time for their brains to rest, and will also do wonders to reduce eye stress and muscle fatigue.
- When possible, limit time on email. Instead of continuously checking email, practice accessing it at certain times of the work day (e.g. 10 a.m., 1 p.m., and 4 p.m.). This will allow recovering employees to stay connected yet still have time to work on pending projects.
- Avoid checking your smartphone or computer before bed time. This will reduce your stress level and promote restful sleep.
Future advances in technology will occur, and workplace demands are likely to increase. The above practices apply to recovering employees — and to all of us, to some extent. In order to reduce the potential for technology burn-out and achieve work/life balance, we need to learn how to limit our connectivity and take a break. We have to let go of the guilt and allow ourselves some down time. As the saying goes, “Silence is Golden.” And if our devices have an on/off switch, shouldn’t we have one too?
- Bank of America. (2015). Trends in Consumer Mobility Report. Retrieved from http://newsroom.bankofamerica.com/press-kits/bank-america-trends-consumer-mobility-report
- American Psychological Association. (9.4.2013). Americans Stay Connected to Work on Weekends, Vacation and Even When Out Sick. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2013/09/connected-work.aspx
- Michigan State University. (1.22.2014). Nighttime Smartphone Use Zaps Workers’ Energy. Retrieved from http://msutoday.msu.edu/news/2014/nighttime-smartphone-use-zaps-workers-energy/
- Padma V, NN Anand, S Gurukul, SM Javid, A Prasad, S Arun. Journal of Pharmacy & BioAllied Sciences. (4.7.2015). Health Problems and Stress in Information Technology and Business Process Outsourcing Employees. 7 (Suppl 1): S9–S13. Retrieved from 10.4103/0975-7406.155764