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The damaging effects of excessive smartphone use at work

The damaging effects of excessive smartphone use at work

Hours lost to smartphone usage impact productivity and health at the workplace

The world is in the grip of a smartphone epidemic.

Deloitte’s 2016 Global Mobile Consumer Survey found that the average American looks at their smartphone 47 times per day. Among 18-24-year-olds, that figure rises to 87, so the trend is only going one way. The obsession is further illustrated by the fact that 40 per cent check their devices within five minutes of waking up and 30 per cent within five minutes of going to sleep. Even in the middle of the night, 50 per cent of American consumers will wake up and check their mobile.

Before you dismiss these figures as typical of American culture, I should point out that Americans are not the biggest smartphone users per capita in the world. That claim rests right here in the Gulf region.

Smartphones permeate every area of our lives. We check emails, make reservations, search for jobs, make purchases, catch up with what’s happening in the world and connect with our social network on a regular basis. Ironically, we use our phones to track our sleeping patterns and monitor progress towards our health goals. I say ‘ironically’ because smartphone use has been linked with both sleep deprivation and wider health issues.

The impact of smartphones on your business

Smartphone technology has transformed the way we do business. It provides constant connectivity within and between organisations, gives instant access to labour-saving apps and facilitates remote working, but it is a facility that requires constant monitoring. In its ubiquity, the smartphone has blurred the lines between work and leisure in a way that can be detrimental to both. On the one hand it brings the danger that workers never really ‘switch off’ and recuperate after work; on the other it brings distractions into the workplace.

We only have to look back to the phenomenon of Pokémon GO last summer. Such was the detrimental effect on workplace performance and safety that within four days of the game’s release, aircraft manufacturer Boeing was forced to issue an email to its entire workforce banning the playing of the game during office hours. A Boeing spokesperson explained, ‘As we strive for zero injuries, we prohibit employees from walking and using mobile devices at the same time on Boeing property.’

The game was also purportedly wasting working hours and taking up important bandwidth.

While hours lost to smartphone usage are clearly a threat to productivity, equally serious is the threat to employee health. Not every smartphone application will result in users walking into each other or falling into ditches, as Pokémon GO did, but studies have found numerous health threats arising from excessive use of smartphones, some of which are severe, all of which could impact the performance of your workforce.

How smartphones can harm your health

Posture is an important factor at work. If you spend hours sitting at a desk, you can suffer long-term damage to your spine and neck if you don’t adopt a healthy posture. Smartphones add an extra dimension to the problem. The tilting of your head forwards and downwards to check your phone can place strain on both your head and neck. If you note your own posture right now, you are probably guilty of it yourself. The excess weight placed on the spine can lead to issues such as early onset of arthritis and cervical spondylosis (neck pain caused by wear and tear). A 2016 study into the effect of smartphone usage on posture and respiratory function, in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science noted the following musculoskeletal issues arising among regular smartphone users:

• Ongoing pain in the neck, shoulder and thumbs.

• A deteriorating and faulty posture – slouched or rounded shoulders, which, over time, can impair the structure of both the cervical and lumbar spine and ligaments.

• Respiratory dysfunction – a change in breathing pattern was reported in 83 per cent of people with neck pain, resulting from faulty posture.

These potential effects first came to light in a study by Kenneth K Hasraj, managing director and chief of Spine Surgery at New York Spine Surgery and Rehabilitation Medicine. He noted that for the average smartphone or tablet user spending between two to four hours each day on their device, a deteriorating posture in the form of rounded shoulders and strain on the neck is unavoidable. In some cases it can lead to degeneration of the spine, which may require surgery.

I mentioned earlier that smartphone use is associated with sleep deprivation. This common connection was investigated by the RAND Corporation, who last year published its findings. Overuse of electronic devices, especially just before bedtime, was clearly linked to sleep disruption, anxiety, psychological distress, and symptoms of depression among young people, who have been brought up in an era of 24/7 connectivity.

Sleep deprivation is a serious problem for employers. As an indication, it has been estimated to cost the American economy nearly one working day per year for every worker. Sleep deprivation affects both performance and productivity. A study from Hult International Business School reported that sleep deprivation leads to poor workplace performance and a struggle to remain focused during the working day. In the UAE, only 12 per cent of people are getting the recommended eight hours’ sleep per night. A lifestyle dominated by excessive smartphone usage will only exacerbate the problem.

Addicted to mobiles

In some cases addiction to the smartphone is becoming a significant mental health problem. A condition known as nomophobia (no-mobile-phobia) has been defined as the ‘discomfort or anxiety caused by the non-availability of a mobile phone, PC or any another virtual communication device’. It is a very real problem for a growing number of people and an underestimated problem for employers keen to minimise disruption to the working environment or reduce pressure on healthcare costs.

The employees most susceptible to nomophobia are, perhaps unsurprisingly, the millennials in your workplace. As far back as 2011, the Pew Research Center estimated that young people were exchanging an average 109.5 text messages per day. Since then new messaging services such as Snapchat and Whatsapp have come into use, increasing smartphone activity further still, distracting workers from meeting performance objectives, lowering productivity, and increasing both physical and emotional distress arising from smartphone obsession.

In 2014, the Willis Towers Watson Global Workforce Study revealed a global crisis in workforce engagement. Just four in 10 employees surveyed across 26 global markets reported being ‘highly engaged’ at work. Subsequent studies suggest that this number may now be even lower. Nomophobia may well be adding to the disengagement.

Smart solutions to smartphone usage

The management of smartphone usage in your business must be made a serious priority in order to boost productivity and engagement and reduce the potential for rising healthcare costs.

Create a smartphone policy: The policy should suit the needs or your organisation. This might include limiting personal smartphone use. Lengthy calls may still adversely impact the productivity of co-workers, so the introduction of agreed time limits or the adoption of a company-wide smartphone ‘etiquette’ will help to reduce any misunderstanding or confusion around the use of mobile devices. This should incorporate specific details, such as permitting weather alerts on smartphones during working hours.

Creating an ergonomic workplace: In the aforementioned study, Dr Kenneth Hasraj recommends that all devices in the workplace be arranged ergonomically to promote a healthy posture. The stress of tilting your head to a 60-degree angle while scrolling down the smartphone screen places an extra 60lb of pressure on your spine. If you’re reading this on a smartphone, check your posture right now. And look around the office at your colleagues or employees. Is it the same story? There are serious health and cost implications for a workforce that is not in an ergonomic environment.

Introduction of wellness programmes: The introduction of a specific wellness programme, designed to explain the benefits of reduced smartphone usage and introduce a more holistic working environment, will improve both engagement and productivity. For employees who suffer from nomophobia, the use of wearable fitness devices may offer a solution. In the US nearly half of all employers are now utilising fitness trackers as part of their corporate wellness programmes.

As we await the next Pokémon GO, our collective global obsession with smartphone usage is unlikely to diminish. Recognising the benefits and risks it offers in the workplace and introducing effective policies now will help to minimise the very serious potential for rising healthcare costs in the future and prevent a crisis of epidemic proportions.

Carole Khalife is head of Human Capital and Benefits at Al Futtaim Willis

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