Burnout 101: Why the Smartphone is Ruining Everything for Everyone
3:00 pm, April 12th | by Colette McIntyre
It’s the first thing you reach for in the morning, still bleary-eyed. When your train briefly pops above ground to cross into Manhattan, you and your fellow commuters all pull one out, faces tinged with a deep relief similar to the expression of a child who has just inhaled for the first time after competitively holding her breath. You are desperate to reconnect — who knows what could’ve happened in the thirty minutes you’ve been without service? On the elevator, everyone scrolls and swipes; you are so engrossed in composing an email that you nearly miss your floor. During your lunch hour, you struggle to text and serve yourself macaroni salad. You sit and eat beside tables of silent, LED-lit faces. As soon as you get home from work, you check it: you read through work documents, you “shoot off” a few emails. You’re not sure when you fall asleep but when you do, your smartphone is there, right beside you, sporadically making signs of life, waiting for you to turn back on.
This is the new reality: the 21st century business landscape knows no boundaries or limitations. Thanks to the smartphone, which has placed an entire office’s worth of gadgetry into back pockets and purses, users are always in reach. Nielsen reports that 55.5 percent of mobile subscribers use smartphones; that number jumps to a staggering 74 percent when limited to 25- to 34-year-olds. The smartphone’s proliferation has meant that many workers are now able to telecommute, an option that has been seen to boost productivity and retention. Increased accessibility has meant that employees who were previously unable to take vacation days can come and go from the office with more ease. Yet smartphones and analogous technologies have also facilitated the general expansion of work hours. Irrespective of time or location, workers are “on,” typing memos, cleaning up presentations, checking voicemails, even conducting meetings; they feel pressured to stay up to date with messages and social networking sites even after the workday is done. In this new digital age, the boundaries between public and private and day and night have been fundamentally altered. Sure, smartphones may unshackle work from location but, increasingly, they are shackling users to work.
In the half hour we have been together, Kathleen* has already checked her phone fifteen times. Her phone didn’t make a sound once. “Sorry, I’m a bit crazy,” she says, reaching for her phone again. “I think I hear it all the time. You know how your ears will sporadically ring? I think that, for me, that sound has been replaced by buzzing, like a vibrating phone.” Kathleen, 23, works an entry-level job in a large publishing company — yet, after witnessing the amount of work emails and text messages she responds to during our conversation, I am beginning to wonder what “entry-level” even means. We’re sitting in a small cafe on the Lower East Side; it’s a Saturday but you’d never guess it considering the amount of briefcases and laptops that are sitting open on the tables. I ask Kathleen how much of her “free time” is spent working on her smartphone and she shrugs: “I don’t know. It’s hard to differentiate what I do for work and what I would do regardless. Probably three hours, total.” She pauses and I’m convinced that she is beginning to feel anxious — she hasn’t looked at her phone since the waiter came by and refilled our water glasses. Instead, she looks at my face. Apparently she is dissatisfied with what she finds there. “Three hours,” she repeats. “That’s normal, right? That’s not that bad?”
While “bad” is hard to quantify, Kathleen’s boundless work hours are certainly the new standard. According to a study released by Gyro, a B2B agency, and Forbes Insights, over 50 percent of executives get business information at all hours. Only 2 percent of respondents claimed to never work weekends or nights; just 3 percent said they didn’t send or receive emails while on vacation. A different survey by Neverfail, an IT services company, found that 73 percent of smartphone users access business email during time off. More than half of the 213 respondents brought a work-related device on vacation and 63 percent admitted to driving more than ten miles to access email. “Home has invaded work and work has invaded home and the boundary is likely never to be restored,” Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, told the New York Times. “The new gadgetry has really put this issue into much clearer focus.” By being attached to their phones, workers are staying attached to work: according to Lookout’s Mobile Mindset Study, nearly 60 percent of American smartphone owners don’t go an hour without checking their phone. Even sleep is unlikely to offer a respite — 54 percent of those surveyed say they check their phones while lying in bed: before going to sleep and in the middle of the night.
It seems that without the physical act of commuting to help reinforce the separation between work and home, smartphone users are lost in a 24/7 world of accessibility. Smartphone owners are connecting to the Internet in more ways than one — they are structuring their lives in a way that mimics the always on, anything-anytime-anywhere nature of the web and living in sync with their smartphones’s rhythms. With an uninterrupted connection to the Internet in hand, time and space have no meaning. As CNN columnist Maggie Jackson writes, “We can physically circuit the globe in hours, and our thoughts can move across the planet in seconds. Time seems putty in our hands. Our lives are increasingly shorn of context.” Leaving the physical office no longer means the disengagement from work; worktime has expanded beyond the standard 9-to-5, Monday through Friday, and not many employers are attempting to help curtail this phenomenon. Wayne Rivers, president of the Family Business Institute, a Raleigh, N.C., consulting firm, told The New York Times that companies “value employees who answer their phones at 1 in the morning,” leaving it up to the worker “to exercise the discipline necessary to avoid exhaustion and burnout.” Being off from work is now a task of mental compartmentalization — going home for the day simply isn’t enough.
The result is that workers are constantly processing, compulsively checking their phones, and are less attentive to the two realms — work and home — that are increasingly integrated. According to a New York Times/CBS News poll, almost 30 percent of Americans under 45 said that use of smartphones and mobile devices made it harder to focus. As the work self and the non-work self become harder to segregate, users are working overtime to keep up with messages and inboxes, a pressure that the smartphone both alleviates and perpetuates. Researchers at the University of Worcester led a study on stress, work, and smartphones, issuing questionnaires and carrying out psychometric stress tests on volunteers from a variety of professionals. The study found that while levels of stress are not contingent on line of work, they are linked to people’s use of smartphones: the more times a person checked his/her phone on average, the more stress s/he felt. And Kathleen’s compulsive need to check and recheck her phone isn’t unusual: a 2010 study alleges that people who own smartphones develop “check habits,” like ritually unlocking one’s phone and opening one or more applications, which increase in frequency over time. It’s not uncommon for users to experience phantom smartphone twitches, believing that their phone vibrated, rang, buzzed, or bleeped with a new text or e-mail even when no messages came.
The harmful effects produced by this incessant multitasking are so prevalent that a growing number of companies are encouraging employees to cut the smartphone cord. Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow was brought in to boost work-life balance at the Boston Consulting Group’s local office. After establishing a rotating Blackberry blackout day, Perlow found that 58 percent of BCG employees who took a day off from smartphone use said they were likely to stay at the firm; just 40 percent of those who continued with their normal smartphone use said the same thing. 54 percent of those separated from their BlackBerrys reported a solid work-life balance, compared to 38 percent in the control group.
We are being pulled in two different directions — even when we’re home, trying to cook dinner, perhaps talking to a friend or partner, drinking a well-deserved alcoholic beverage, we’re being reminded of other obligations by our phones’s flashing lights and aggressive vibrating growls. “HELLO, SOMETHING IMPORTANT IS HAPPENING,” they seem to yell. “IN THIS TERRIBLE ECONOMY, CAN YOU REALLY AFFORD TO SLACK OFF? WHAT IF YOU LOSE THIS JOB? THEY HAVE TO KNOW HOW COMMITTED YOU ARE. JUST CHECK ME!” Smartphones are instrumental in the increasingly blurred boundaries between work and home; it’s easy to burn out when you’re always on. “When I forget my phone at home or don’t check it for awhile, I feel out of sorts,” Kathleen, my lunch partner, told me. “I’ll constantly check for it, even when I know it isn’t there, because I feel so disconnected. Then I’ll start thinking about all the emails that are piling up…oh, it’s just bad!” While technology is created to help us live, it’s now determining how we live. “In frantically integrating work and home, we stray perilously close to diluting both,” writes CNN’s Maggie Jackson. “This is a matter of attention, intention, and depth.”
*Names have been changed
[Photo via Shutterstock]