The Hub Time to log off: How companies can identify and curb digital addiction at work

Time to log off: How companies can identify and curb digital addiction at work

Compulsive use of technology can lead to employee burnout, and wasted time and company resources, new study shows

Digital addiction is a growing problem in the workforce as technologies like  cellphones and laptops make it easier to complete tasks and check in on work at all hours.

Organizations should take action to not only understand the warning signs of digital addiction, but also consider strategies to help employees break free of unhealthy behaviours, according to a new study by Athabasca University’s Dr. Helen Lam and Dr. Mark Harcourt of the University of Waikato.

“Organizations have a huge role to play in helping employees address digital addiction—and fostering an environment free of digital addiction,” said Lam, a professor emerit of human resources management with AU’s Faculty of Business.

Staying connected at all hours

Lam said there is considerable research on digital addiction related to computer gaming and personal internet usage. But few studies have focused on digital addiction at work.

She said her own interest in the topic was sparked after realizing she was “always online” on her computer or tablet during waking hours.

“I would say I am very reliant on digital technology,” she said. “I also noticed a lot of people around me are in a similar boat, being very uncomfortable without digital access, even after work hours.”

person using cellphone and laptop at the same time - digital addiction at work

What is digital addiction and how common is it at work?

The American Psychiatric Association has not formally recognized digital addiction as a mental illness.

For this study, Lam said digital addiction refers to when people cannot control when or how often they use digital technology like smartphones, the internet, or social media. Behaviours can include heightened impulsivity, being prone to making negative assumptions, and obsessive-compulsive behaviours.

Lam said compulsive use of digital technologies can lead to wasted time and company resources.

Digital addiction can increase the risks of errors or lead to potential reputation issues via inappropriate social media use, visiting unsafe websites, or accidentally divulging sensitive company information.

Warning signs of digital addiction

Just because a colleague appears preoccupied and frequently checks their phone in a meeting doesn’t necessarily mean they’re showing signs of digital addiction.

Lam said it’s not unreasonable to check devices if, say, someone is waiting for an important email. And sometimes, meetings are simply boring and employees check out.

Employee surveys can be a useful tool in determining if there is a problem, Lam said. Managers and supervisors can also look at changes in employees’ digital technology usage as well as their well-being and performance.

Monitor employees with caution

Clues about digital addiction can be found in an employee’s digital footprints, such as data logs showing time spent on work devices, frequency of use, or increases to invoices for digital access.

Though monitoring employee behaviour is the first step in identifying digital addiction, Lam cautioned that organizations must take care to avoid damaging trust.

“The monitoring has to be reasonable and the communication to employees about its purpose and process has to be very clear.”

man using computer in dark room - digital addiction at work

Don’t take advantage of employee addiction

Though some companies might be tempted to exploit their employees’ addiction and digital responsiveness, Lam cautioned that any positive benefits are short-term. Eventually, the negatives such as poor time management, anxiety, and sleeplessness will start to affect performance.

“People cannot go on forever being burnt out or stressed and still be a productive employee,” she said.

Work culture, policy, interventions to curb addiction

Once determining if there is a problem, organizations should be proactive about designing interventions and policies to curb the behaviours.

That can mean everything from reviewing job positions to ensure employees aren’t bored to improving work-life balance. Peer groups like social committees can also be helpful to ensure employees feel supported.

Lam said organizations can also take action by fostering a healthy work culture. Leaders can model appropriate behaviour by not sending emails after hours, and by encouraging employees to take breaks from technology.

She said it’s also important to dispel the myth that workaholism is valued, when in fact it often leads to burnout.

“It’s better to emphasize working smarter than working harder.”

The research was published online in January in the peer-reviewed Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal.

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  • February 20, 2024