Today, we take connection to the internet pretty much for granted with most of us connected 24/7. At work, it’s a given, if you use a computer or laptop it will have an internet connection. That connection should be for work related issues only but we live in a society where we are so information’s rich and concentration poor that’s not going to happen. Let’s be honest most of us at some point will drift of task to check personal email, shopping, twitter etc.
Lost production through employee internet use costs businesses billions of revenue every year. Smartphones make it even harder to stay on task as employees have an instant internet connection in their pocket. The phone is often quicker, more private (if you don’t use the employers internet connection) and companies can no longer log your surfing habits.
Employees can now surf the net, answer text messages and check their social media all from their phone, a multitasker’s paradise. There is even research that supports employees multitasking between personal and work related issues, which claims allowing employees to do this will make them more productive.
I have as yet to see any form of multitasking that is useful other than to create a more stressful environment and further erode our ability to concentrate. Put it this way, it takes on average 23 minutes to return to your original task after checking your email. The Daily Telegraph in the UK reports that we use our phone about every 8.6 minutes during the day. That is one large chunk of your working day gone just checking your phone, so much for multitasking!
Research into employee internet use in the workplace dates back a few years now and concentrates mainly on employees using the company network to surf the internet. Things have changed dramatically since the launch of the smartphone in 2009. Today 91% of Australians now own a mobile phone. The vast majority of these phones will have internet access and users will not rely on the company network for connection.
The smartphone gives every employee the opportunity to use company time to maintain their poor technology habits. Internet abuse in the workplace has become more difficult to detect. Businesses continue to lose millions in lost time and employees become more stressed as their technology habit continues to grow.
Poor work habits are only the tip of the iceberg as research has shown IA can result in a number of mental health disorders including low self-esteem, impulsivity, poor sleep quality, mood disorder, and suicide. The current drive to work from home during the pandemic will only have increased this problem by leaving many feeling more isolated.
In Australia 1 in 5 adults suffer from some form of mental illness in a given year. Even more worrying is that 54% of those who suffer mental health issues do not access any form of treatment. The United States reports similar figures to Australia although showing a higher percentage (76%) of employees reported that they struggled with their metal health.
With technology set to continue to integrate further into our lives mental health issues connected to our digital habits will, more than likely continue to grow. The World Economic Forum reports that by 2030, the global costs of mental health problems will total over $6 trillion.
Common Prevention methods
Currently the most common measures taken by businesses to prevent abuse of the internet in the work place concentrates on four areas; Deterrent, Preventative, Detection and Remedial.
- Deterrent measures – tend to rely on policies and guidelines governing internet use but rarely fully enforced.
- Preventive measures – may include locks on computer room doors and password access controls. But does little to deter excessive use of the internet and is more concerned with illegitimate and/or illegal internet use.
- Detection measures – can be used to identify individual suspicious activity, heavy bandwidth use, system audits and virus scanning reports. Server logs record websites used and help employers gather evidence of internet abuse and identify perpetrators. But probably would not be able to identify an employee using their own mobile phone network.
- Remedial measures – are used to correct the harmful effect of internet abuse and punish the perpetrators through warnings, reprimands, or termination of employment.
The above measures were developed before the introduction of the smartphone and whilst all four should be present in every business they don’t tackle the problem of employees using their personal smartphone to surf the net at work.
Lost production time means some workers may take work home, but this may cause more stress for the employee as they try to contend with the disruption this causes to their work life balance. The expectation for employees to respond to emails outside normal working hours is already damaging this area. It does little to solve the problem of employee excessive internet use or improve employee productivity. It should be noted that there is a need to conduct more research in this area.
Why Excessive Internet use is a Concern
Research produced by Medibank shows workplace stress is costing the Australian economy $14.81 billion a year. Stress related presenteeism and absenteeism are directly costing Australian employers $10.11 billion a year and 3.2 days per worker are lost each year through workplace stress. Note these costs do not include the cost of replacing staff.
The Black Dog Institute shows one in five (20%) Australians aged 16-85 experience a mental illness in any year. The most common mental illnesses are depression, anxiety and substance use disorder. All of which can lead to absenteeism and reduced productivity. Note that medical research shows Internet addiction has the same characteristics of substance use addiction.
The core components of addiction are:
- mood modification
Interestingly, all the above symptoms are prevalent in internet addiction.
Anxiety, stress and depression are also generated from excessive internet use due to the disruption of normal life. These have been steadily increasing since the launch of the smartphone in 2009.
Research regarding internet addiction being linked to depression is still being conducted. At the time of writing it is still unclear whether internet addiction causes depression or depressed people are attracted to the internet to escape from reality (read my post on this here).
Are your staff recording absence through stress and anxiety? If they are, maybe you need to check their internet habits. Employee excessive internet use may be masking underlying mental health issues. Taking the time to connect with your employees could save your business thousands in lost production.
Types of Internet addiction
The internet can be a positive influence with its huge source of knowledge and entertainment available anywhere, anytime with an internet connection. It’s proved to be an invaluable tool allowing those in remote areas or families split across different continents to continue to communicate with loved ones during the Covid19 crises.
Unfortunately the feel good factor and sense of anonymity generated by the internet allows some to develop rather unhealthy habits. The following is short list of some of these habits, which if left untreated, can grow into addictions. These addictive habits will very likely be carried out at work and some may be harmful to a company reputation if discovered by a client.
Compulsive Information Seeking
Probably more common than we realise and where users are obsessed with discovering and organising data. The internet provides users with a wealth of data and knowledge. For some, the opportunity to find information so easily has turned into an uncontrollable urge to gather and organize data.
This involves the collection of pornographic material from adult websites, adult chat rooms, and XXX web-cam services. Addiction to any of these websites is not healthy and can impact of one’s ability to form lasting relationships. Not to mention the damage this could inflict on individuals and the company reputation should this be discovered by an external source such as a client.
This includes gambling sites, trading stocks, online auctions (such as E-bay), and compulsive online shopping. These habits can have a have a major impact on one’s financial stability. Spending or losing excessive amounts of money can also cause stress to family and personal relationships. The ease of access and anonymity allow this habit to grow. The ease of access and always on lifestyle makes it so difficult for those who are already susceptible to a gambling or spending addiction to break free.
Cyber (Online) Relationship Addiction
Cyber or online relationship addicts obsess with finding and maintaining relationships online, often at the expense of real-life family and friends. Often, people who pursue online relationships do so while concealing their real identity and appearance – Excessive online relationships can lead to an inability to make real-world connections.
Computer or Gaming Addiction
Computer addiction involves on- and offline activities that can be done with a computer. Researchers quickly found that obsessive computer game playing was becoming a problem in certain settings so get rid of the play stations in the staffroom.
Not all employee internet use will turn into addiction but most of us have some bad technology habits that make us unproductive and cause us quite a bit of stress and anxiety. We all get lost in the net and stay on online longer than intended. A little bit of awareness of our poor habits would probably be a good thing. Businesses that look to educate their employees on the dangers of excessive internet use and how to prevent these habits are more likely to produce a more balanced and productive workforce.
Understanding the Signs of Internet Addiction
To improve employee mental health in the workplace and reduce the amount of time spent surfing the internet at work we need to understand a few things about Internet Addiction.
- Internet Addiction has the same habitual compulsion to engage in a certain activity or utilize a substance the same as other well know addictions. This addiction can have a profound impact on the individual’s physical, social, and mental well-being.
- As the addiction grows the individual may find it hard to deal with life in general and shy away from making decisions and meeting people.
- Such behaviours only serve to fuel the growing need to the growing technology habit and seek to cope by surfing the internet.
- The signs and symptoms of Internet Addiction are not that easy to detect and as technology continuously evolves, the physical and psychological effects will also change.
- It is wise to regularly update your skills and knowledge in this area. Businesses should also be mindful that internet addiction may also be a coping mechanism for other underlying mental health problems. So please take care when assessing your staff.
Symptoms – Psychological
- Stressed, Anxious – If the employees position means they are exposed to large amounts of these then surfing the internet may be a coping mechanism. Anxiety may also increase as the user becomes more dependent on technology.
- Depression – Too much anxiety and stress can lead to depression although it is still unclear whether depressed people are attracted to the escapism of the internet or the internet causes depression. (covered previously here)
- Changes in behaviour, mood changes, employee becomes more agitated, irritable and frustrated, may try to avoid work to satisfy their craving.
- They may procrastinate over simple decisions, leading to frustration and angry outbursts.
- Appearing tired at work – IA can cause bouts of insomnia
- Dishonest about their internet use and may become defensive when questioned
- They may become more withdrawn from daily working life and reduce face to face contact with other employees e.g. Not taking breaks with colleagues. They may lose the ability to prioritize and miss meetings or schedules.
- They may also lose their sense of time and remain on the internet for longer than needed. Possibly missing important events which leave the user with strong feelings of guilt
- They may display feelings of loneliness and isolation as their addiction means they miss more and more face to face contact.
Physical Symptoms – Changes to physical movement may also appear
- Backache from poor posture
- Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
- Weight loss due to poor diet often failing to eat properly to avoid being away from the computer
- Poor Personal Hygiene (e.g., not bathing to stay online)
- Neck Pain
- Weight gain due to lack of exercise and poor eating habits
- Dry Eyes and other Vision Problems
What can Employers do?
Keep in mind there is no single cause of internet addiction and research into the exact causes of this addiction are still being conducted. So far research has indicated there several factors that can contribute to potential internet addiction such as:
- Current mental health condition, they may already be suffering from depression or anxiety
- Environmental factors.
To help prevent Internet Addiction in the workplace employers should consider the following
- Educate your staff on the dangers of internet use through professional development.
- Establish responsible staff members to identify employees who may have excessive internet use problems. Using the ‘educate staff’ approach will help raise awareness of their own use, identify those who are using the internet excessively and possibly prevent escalation to becoming addicted.
- The environment is probably one the biggest contributors to internet addiction. What sort of environment do you encourage? Is it demanding, stressful, messy, cluttered, lack of open space. The wrong type of environment can actually encourage digital addiction.
- Check employee workload issues to ensure they are not swamped by information overload. A stressed employee maybe more likely to surf the internet to escape the pressure of work.
- Reduce unnecessary emails/messages which disrupt the concentration. Avoid the plague of reply all.
- Educate employees to establish healthy workplace habits avoiding the constant disruption to their work.
- Introduce short lunchtime courses in Mindfulness relaxation.
- Establish regular breaks away from screens and ensure some time for face to face contact
- Involve responsible employees in establishing a mobile phone and internet access policy for acceptable use in the workplace. If they create their own rules for use then they maybe less likely to break them.
Invest in the mental wellbeing of your staff, it could be the best investment you ever made!