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Mobile madness: Work at your fingertips – even at home

, January 5, 2015, 0 Comments

mobile home-MarketExpress-inResponding to emails after hours and taking work home is common in many countries, despite the fact that constant stress can lead to health problems. But whose responsibility is it to keep a worker’s #headabovewater?

If she leaves early or has her phone switched off, she feels like betraying the love of her life. Rachel started working at the age of 11 and has defined herself through it ever since.

“I wanted a bicycle and my dad made me work for it to understand the value of money,” she says. “I worked as a Saturday girl in a local supermarket replenishing shelves. Later on I found out my dad was paying the owner to pay my salary, but I guess that experience taught me the lesson that work pays off.”

Today, little of her attitude towards work has changed: “I will always go the extra mile and try to be better. I will be the first that gets in and the last one to go. I am under constant pressure, there’s always a target to hit,” she says.

Rachel is 26 and her various bosses have often shown surprise when she tells them her age. Her wealth of experience in retail, confidence in managing large teams and reliability in hitting targets suggests she has been in the industry for much longer.

Although contracted to work 37.5 hours per week, her workplace is always within arm’s reach 24/7 – through her smartphone. This way, Rachel easily works 60 hours per week. And that doesn’t include the amount of time she takes checking her emails every few seconds – from the moment she wakes up until she goes back to sleep in her flat in Reading, UK.

The side effects of work

Rachel is part of a relatively new development that started in the late 1990s: figures for the US show that an estimated 40 percent of employees increasingly suffer from stress and illness as a result of work demands.

And the mobility of the workplace – through home computers or on smartphone screens – has increased such demand. It is both psychologically and physically damaging, says Louise Hartley, psychologist at the University of York, Canada, who focuses on the impact of depression in the workplace.

“Nowadays, bodies don’t get the chance to cleanse themselves from the Cortisol which the body produces under stress,” she says referring to the hormone the body produces to regulate blood pressure and provide energy – too much of it can weaken the immune system, destroy muscles and bones and lead to heart disease.

Still, stress is not always damaging, but it can be when it becomes a constant companion, according to David Ballard from the American Psychologist Association (APA). One of his projects is the Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program (PHWP) which aims to make workplaces healthier thereby enhancing performance.

“Research shows that chronic stress can contribute to the development of major illnesses or conditions, such as heart disease, depression and obesity,” he says. “Adding to the problem, people often respond to stress in ways that further harm their health – overeating, not getting enough sleep, smoking, or consuming alcohol, for example.”

Companies taking advantage of ambition

Just like Rachel, James also enjoys going to work every day. Training to be an assistant manager for a large international bank in the UK, the 20-year-old, too, works more than 45 hours every week.

But in fact, Rachel and James are not working hours that are far above the UK’s national average. There, the average number of hours full-time employees work is 42.7 per week, higher than the EU average of 41.6 hours, according figures from the British Office of National Statistics (ONS).

James would take work home if he could, but because of confidentiality reasons he has to stay longer in his physical office, instead. “I feel that people who want to progress and have jobs of responsibility should be prepared to work outside office hours,” he says.

But Rachel disagrees, saying that it is pressure from firms rather than individuals that is taking its toll: “Companies require you to work hard, very hard. They take advantage of people’s needs, capabilities and ambitions. They create these big roles and jobs that look amazing from the outside but there is always a trick to them.”

Anti-stress laws to cut down on mental illness

Acknowledging that they share the responsibility in fostering competition and mental illness by expecting better and quicker responses from their employees, companies like Daimler and Volkswagen are changing their priorities.

Daimler made headlines earlier in 2014 by authorizing its 100,000 staff to delete their emailswhile on holiday. And Volkswagen switched off its Blackberry servers to prevent employees from sending emails after work in 2011 in a bid to combat the “always available” corporate culture.

Meanwhile, some European governments have also stepped in to change the work at home culture and are backing even more radical plans: anti-stress laws in Austria, Denmark and the Netherlands require companies to have their workplace assessed for stress factors – these include contacting staff out of hours – by an external psychologist.

Less flexibility – more stress?

Stereotypically hard-working Germany’s weekly full-time employment hours are also above the EU average at 42. Still, the extra hours employees are working has caused concerns among politicians, such as Germany’s labor minister Andrea Nahles, who has called for change. She has proposed alegal strategy that would cut down on mental illness caused by constant availability, by outlawing late night emails.

But if such legislation were also introduced in the UK, Rachel is sure her work habits would not be affected: “I take work home everyday, I work on my days off, my holidays. I check my emails constantly, it is an obsession. Once you miss something important, there are days of catching up and more work to do.”

And while companies and governments may try to regulate such behavior, Ballard thinks such attempts do more harm than good: “Although designed to protect employees, shutting off email or banning access outside of normal work hours may inadvertently cause more stress by reducing the flexibility employees have in how, when, and where they work.”

Instead of legislation, he recommends companies ensure employees develop habits that embrace technology and information in a healthy way, helping them create boundaries that are tailored to their specific schedules and demands.

“I feel like a granny”

James agrees and says purely external attempts are often not sufficient as performance patterns are too deeply ingrained in the workplace.

“People have always worked hard – that hasn’t changed – however society now forces people towards a long hours culture,” he adds. “Because one person does it, this dictates that everybody else must or risk being outdone and made to look bad – this is important in the current competitive job market.”

It takes a joint effort to break the cycle, otherwise it can turn into self-destruction – like in Rachel’s case. She finds herself in a “never-ending cycle” that is very difficult to get out of.

“I am constantly exhausted by the stress and the lack of sleep, I am in pain all day, and it seems to have no end,” she says. “I feel like an 80-year-old granny. I have no energy at all, I put on weight, I am unhappy and everything takes longer to get done.”

Efficiency goes down as the amount of work hours increases

As well as being bad for health, being part of a work culture that always demands more and never allows for time to switch off is also inefficient.

According to recent research carried out by John Pencavel, who specializes in labor economics at Stanford University, reducing work hours can actually increase productivity. When people were found to exceed a limit of 50 hours per week, productive output fell.

But psychologist Hartley emphasises that it is individuals themselves who need to decide where their personal boundaries are: “I think employees have to take responsibility for drawing lines. It never occurs to us to say ‘this is all I can do’, if the boss comes in with another thing. We’ve got some responsibility for trying to negotiate our workload and we have to make sure we are doing some healthy things for our bodies like meditating or exercising versus vegetating in front of the TV.”

In the meantime, Rachel has reached the end of her capacities, she says: “What is the prize of my ambition? It’s got to a point where I don’t care about earning a lot of money or how much could I achieve in my career, I just want to feel better.”

On top of symptoms of stress, the 26-year-old was also diagnosed with breast cancer last year. She is reminded daily that however much she cherishes her job, she needs to look after herself more right now. Otherwise, she may never be able to do what she loves most again.