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Are our devices harming our health?



I’ve caved. The end of my phone contract has been looming large, and as I pondered my options, somehow I thought, “I’d really like to be more connected.” So I’m ditching my two-year-old, decidedly not smart, flip phone and getting an iPhone—and a data plan. Soon I’ll be able to tweet and update my Facebook status and share photos wherever I am. And I’m afraid.

You see, I’m already online for a large part of each day—to the extent that I often shun my computer outside of working hours—and I already “multi-task” and consume an overwhelming amount of information. What am I thinking? Why would I want or need to have instant access to the Internet at all times?

Well, I’m hoping that it doesn’t turn into a distraction, for one thing. I don’t want to be that guy who has to find out the answer to a question instantly by looking it up on Wikipedia or Google. I like a bit of mystery in my life—if only temporarily.

Last year, I wrote:

Recent research has shown that, while multi-taskers do a lot more, they don’t really do a good job of whatever it is they’re doing. US studies have shown that people who work faster when multi-tasking, but they complete fewer tasks. Another showed that students faced with math questions work much slower when they are distracted, and they suffer more stress. And another study showed that regular multi-taskers took longer to switch between projects than those who seldom multi-task.

I don’t want that!

I also don’t want to be one of the many phone users who does a little surfing while sitting on the toilet—at home or at work.

The New York Times reported last August:

Cellphones, which in the last few years have become full-fledged computers with high-speed Internet connections, let people relieve the tedium of exercising, the grocery store line, stoplights or lulls in the dinner conversation.

I know. At Christmas dinner, my older cousin couldn’t keep his hands off his new phone—presumably messaging with friends about the loot he scored. His wife was not impressed.


The technology makes the tiniest windows of time entertaining, and potentially productive. But scientists point to an unanticipated side effect: when people keep their brains busy with digital input, they are forfeiting downtime that could allow them to better learn and remember information, or come up with new ideas.

A-ha! I wonder if this effect is related to the afternoon tiredness workers commonly experience?

And are employers encouraging this type of potentially unsafe, unhealthy and unproductive behaviour?

According to Marc Berman, a neuroscientist at the University of Michigan, when people reach for their digital devices during that brief window of downtime, “People think they’re refreshing themselves, but they’re fatiguing themselves.”

Well, well. Distraction, lack of focus, exhaustion, poor hygiene, stress—all because of a little phone. These aren’t the sorts of outcomes that lead to a healthy and safe work environment.

Add overtime claims to that list, too. No doubt you’ve heard a story of a person whose boss requires them to answer emails on their Blackberry phone at all hours of the day and night—and weekends. Or maybe that person is you! How do you feel about it? Would you tell your boss it’s bad for your health to stay connected the way he expects? Does this change your attitude toward answering work emails outside of work hours? Is there even a point in trying to separate work from leisure any more?

I don’t know the answer to that one. All I know is that I needed a new phone, and I was sick of typing text messages on a number pad. Luckily, my boss doesn’t expect me to answer emails when I’m not working, but will I be able to resist? And how about all of those friendly twitter and Facebook updates—and all those cute cat videos?

But seriously: does your workplace have a policy on (smart)phone use? Have you ever considered the health and safety implications of excessive “connection”? Do you think employers have some responsibility to regulate the use of digital devices among their employees?

Adam Gorley
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Editor

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Adam Gorley

Adam Gorley is a copywriter, editor and researcher at First Reference. He contributes regularly to First Reference Talks, Inside Internal Controls and other First Reference publications. He writes about general HR issues, accessibility, privacy, technology in the workplace, accommodation, violence and harassment, internal controls and more. Read more
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