Caring about wellbeing in cyberspace

Technology is an enabler. It gives the option to communicate with whomever, whenever and wherever.  E-working is now one of the most common methods of working in Europe and the United States. However, the option to “switch off” from work is often neglected. Many of us do not consider the possible impact on our physical and mental health of being permanently “switched on”.

Research indicates that technology provides many benefits, including flexible working hours, working from home and other remote locations, allowing us to manage better the sometimes conflicting pressures between our working and non-working lives. We can now integrate many aspects of our lives, leading to an improvement in the richness of our experiences and life satisfaction.

Research also indicates that for employers, productivity and job satisfaction are likely gains of e-working. Organisations are often keen to encourage access to technology, enhancing collaborative working through shared networks and we as individuals generally enjoy feeding our obsession to be continually “connected”.

Being able to contact people “out of hours” or through breaks can reduce our stress levels and serve to reduce the post-holiday backlog. But work can turn into an obsession, whereby individuals are unable to slow down and remove themselves from work. Those who are already workaholics may find that technology further feeds an existing obsession with work.  However, addiction can be driven by the technology itself and constant readiness can be a hook to us all.

The expectation of managers and colleagues can be that you are, and will be, always available to answer their requests at any time of day or night. A survey of e-workers revealed that, while they enjoy the benefits of working remotely, for some this can lead to overworking, burn-out, tiredness and sometimes low feelings.

Tiredness in itself can lead to errors, for example, sending a work-related email at midnight after a glass of wine may not equal quality.  Further, social isolation needs to be considered; staying in touch with colleagues and building relationships may be more difficult without the mediator of physical presence occasionally.

Those who have e-worked for several years report that it is particularly important to know where the boundaries are between work and non-work, and to compartmentalise these aspects where possible.

A lack of time to recuperate fully from work could lead to stress levels being retained for longer periods. Stress is already known to cause physical problems through increased cortisol levels including heart disease. Experienced remote workers add exercise breaks and ensure that the social networking aspect of work is not neglected while e-working.

Looking after our wellbeing at work is increasingly important, and managing our minds and bodies may be taking second place to the pull of technology. More research is needed in this area to help individuals and organisations manage the impact of new technologies on our health.

Dr Christine Grant is an occupational psychologist and senior lecturer in occupational psychology at Coventry University. She is a member of the British Psychological Society’s working group on work-life balance.