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  • International Workplace
  • 14 March 2017
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Education, not legislation, will help us disconnect from technology

As the New Year dawned, French workers were given the ‘right to disconnect’ from work outside regular business hours, provided they were employed by a company with more than 50 staff.

According to the French socialist, MP Benoit Hamon, the new law is necessary because “employees physically leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash – like a dog. The texts, the messages, the emails – they colonise the life of the individual to the point where he or she eventually breaks down.”

Although there’s no doubt that digital technology has blurred the boundaries between work and home, giving rise to unhealthy working patterns, decreased family connectedness and increased stress and anxiety levels, is legislation, rather than education, the answer?

While the idea of turning back the clock to a time when we all worked the same hours is bound to be appealing in a country that already has a legally mandated 35-hour working week, the emergence of digital technology has been a good thing for many workers in the UK. It enables us to work flexibly, and to fit work around our lives instead of having to stick to inflexible routines and rush-hour commuting.

Problems with technology arise because our psychological processes haven’t kept pace with the rate at which technology is evolving. Most of us are not forced to reply to every email we receive in the evening or at weekends. But since we’re psychologically conditioned to stay connected and respond during the working day, we find it almost impossible to switch off that impulse just because we’ve physically left the office.

One solution is to do as the French have done and discourage everyone from using email outside of traditional working hours. However, if we want to embrace the opportunities the digital era presents for even more powerful flexible working, the solution isn’t banning everyone from working beyond a certain time of day, but educating and empowering employees to use digital technology in healthier ways.

Five ways to do this are:

  1. Monitor the extent to which technology-related health problems already exist and work with IT to create dashboards that alert employees to the extent they are obsessively checking email or extending their hours by logging on remotely.
  2. Inform employees about the dark side of technology and ways to reduce this by placing resources about how to use technology in healthy ways alongside other wellbeing materials, such as information about eating healthily and dealing with other types of stress.
  3. Educate employees about the link between their actions and their mental health with resilience workshops that demonstrate how to listen to their bodies and recognise when their use of technology is causing them to experience ‘low mood’.
  4. Prevent email addiction by encouraging employees to ‘dip in and dip out’ without getting pulled into dealing with trivial matters. If they can’t do that, get them to switch off and ask others to use a different form of communication if it’s urgent.
  5. Accept there is no one size fits all solution. Although a night owl might relish leaving work early to have dinner with their family, only to pick up an important project again later on, another employee might struggle to disconnect without a ‘switch off’ point.

Ultimately, with wearable technology set to increase our connectedness to work and each other even more, the solution isn’t to try and enforce rigid boundaries between work and life, but rather to educate and empower employees to find the approach that’s right for them.

 

This article first appeared at PeopleManagement.com and is reproduced with kind permission.