Whenever I’ve been out to eat at a restaurant recently, I’ve noticed families, couples, and coworkers alike all glued to their phones during a meal. No, this isn’t uncommon, but stopping to really notice these people forgoing in-person communication for their phones has a powerful effect. Specifically, it’s gotten me thinking about the psychological dangers of 24-7 accessibility, and the way it’s shifted our expectations in both personal and professional contexts. Now that smartphones enable us to have constant, efficient and ongoing forms of communication with literally everyone we know, we are now always at anyone’s beck and call. The benefits are clear, but the downsides sometimes feel even clearer.
In their article, “Extended Work Availability and Its Relation With Start-of-Day Mood and Cortisol,” psychologists Jan Dettmers et. al cited research showing that technological advances such as smartphones and mobile internet access have made it easier for people to take their work home with them, resulting in larger workloads, more hours worked and increased expectations from employers (not to mention increased levels of stress hormones among employees). In other words, it’s not just that employees feel like they should be accountable to their work emails, but also that employers are expecting to reach their employees 24-7. But smartphones or not, 24-7 accessibility is not the definition of a “full-time” job.
In my own work with executives (who are arguably in the “boss” role in most contexts), I’ve heard a wide range of mixed feelings about the technology that allows them to stay connected with work, even when they are out of the office. On one hand, many who spend most of their days in meetings or on the road simply appreciate being able to get on their phone in the evenings to read company-wide emails, respond to urgent messages, and catch up with the statuses of certain projects. Others, especially those who receive a lot of emails or are particularly anxious, characterize constant smartphone use as an unfortunate obligation—a behavior that can stem from defensiveness, a fear of their potential to be paralyzed with overwhelm.
But then, there are also the individuals driven by a sense of urgency, who actually like the rush of being the first to know and respond to developments in the workplace. Still others have expressed that incessant smartphone-checking has become a compulsive, bad habit. One woman with whom I’ve worked has even likened her “OCD email refreshing” to an old habit of cigarette smoking—an unproductive, but automatic response to free-floating anxiety.
But the effects of constant phone-checking can be more pernicious than just mild malaise. Research suggests that extended availability and the associated blurring of the boundaries between work and home can have a measurably negative effect on well-being. It has been shown to affect physical health by affecting the stress hormone cortisol (which, when present in high levels, correlates with heart disease, diabetes and other chronic illness). Resentments can build when employees don’t perceive themselves as having control over their availability, and can easily contribute to both internal and interpersonal conflicts. And not only does this accessibility cause stress in and of itself, but it can also interfere with one’s ability to recover from the stress of specific work-projects; the absence of clear boundaries between “work” and “life” preclude some people from being able to adequately compartmentalize their work-related stressors.
Still, based on my own experience of working with clients over the years, it’s important to note that not everyone finds extended availability stressful. In fact, some find it energizing—and research supports this with somewhat counterintuitive findings. Those who expect work-life and home-life to be separate have been found to experience more stress when they use their phones for work matters outside of work hours, as they are forced to confront the disappointment of unmet expectations. However, those who plainly expect that they will bring some work home with them end up experiencing less stress the more they used their smartphones for work outside of the office, perhaps because they were maintaining their expectations, and thus staved off any worry about falling down on the job.
Either way, the key is being aware of if your stress triggers are related to email and what your expectations have to do with it. If you’re someone who knows that you find excessive smartphone use stressful, you’ll likely want to be more intentional about finding ways to detach outside of work hours. Here are a few ways to get started:
1. Get clear on your boss’ expectations around availability
Over the years, I’ve worked with quite a few leaders who actively emphasize their respect of boundaries to their employees. Still, what tends to happen is that employees respond to their boss’ behavior, rather than their words. So if their boss ends up writing an email after hours or on the weekend, that communicates a strong signal regardless. As a result, employees may internalize the expectation that they should also be working outside of standard hours.
If, as an employee, you find yourself in a situation in which your boss communicates a respect for boundaries with words but not with actions, find a time to address it directly. Point out the disconnect, and try to clarify expectations. Then, if your boss gives you the message that he or she legitimately doesn’t expect you to always be available, believe him or her and give yourself permission to go off-line. Period.
With that said, I’ve worked with many bosses who simply aren’t aware that they are communicating mixed messages by sending emails at all hours of the night and weekends even as they say they don’t expect their employees to respond outside of office hours. If you’re a boss who isn’t practicing what you preach in this regard, a simple fix that I’ve seen work for various clients is to save your emails to draft and send them in the morning, so as not to create confusion for your employees.
2. Unplug for small stretches of time, and schedule them if need be.
If you don’t have to be available 24-7, but do need to check messages periodically, set aside times during which you can be sure to unplug. For example, if you’re working out but use your phone to listen to music, turn off your notifications so you will be uninterrupted as you take this deliberate time for self-care. Or, if you’re having dinner with your loved ones, keep your phone in your purse – not sitting face-up beside your dinner plate. Rest assured that you’ll still be able to get to your messages later, and you’ll be a whole lot less likely to stir up emotions or conflict.
3. Limit smartphone use for business before bed.
The blue light that’s emitted from electronic devices has been shown to impair sleep by affecting our levels of melatonin, a hormone that helps control our sleep and wake cycles. And it appears that using your electronic devices for work before bed ups the ante in terms of the potential negative effects. A study out of Michigan State University found that people who used their smartphones for work purposes after 9pm were less engaged and more tired at work the next day. And the adverse effects of smartphone-use was far worse than those from watching TV, working on a laptop, or using a tablet. Although moving your phone might not be a viable option if your job necessitates that kind of availability (e.g. you are an on-call physician or IT professional), honor the times you are able to be “off-duty.” If and when you do have a night when your phone doesn’t need to be right beside you before bed, set a boundary for yourself, and put it elsewhere.
Whether it’s technology, food, or any other potentially addictive (but necessary) aspect of life, these behaviors are usually most harmful when you feel like you can’t control them. The most powerful trick is finding even the smallest ways with which you can give yourself some semblance of control, helping you feel as though your off-hours are your own, and that your accessibility can only be monitored by you, and you alone.
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