Social media damaging our work-life balance – that was the subject of the talk I gave to the British Psychological Society in Liverpool a few weeks ago. My topic was “mental capital and wellbeing at work”: the need for people to have control or autonomy in the job; to be managed by praise and reward rather than fault-finding; to have manageable workloads and achievable deadlines; and, most importantly, to have some balance in their lives.
I highlighted research that showed that consistently working long hours was having a damaging effect on the health of workers, their family life and their productivity. I mentioned that the work-life balance of most people was made worse by emails, by the unending electronic overload experienced by many of us, day in, day out. Smartphones and tablets mean that people who access their emails in the evening and on holidays – when families should be spending time together without work interference – were potentially damaging their health and productivity. And although my comments on emails represented only a few minutes of my one-hour presentation, the audience overwhelmingly picked up on the issue, and so did the press.
Email and social media have served a very important purpose in the workplace, and have been an enabler in communications and virtual work relationships. The downsides, however, now outweigh the benefits, and these include: unmanageable workloads (when faced with an excessive email inbox), the loss of face-to-face relationships with colleagues; and the misuse of emails to avoid having face-to-face discussions about difficult work-related issues. As Einstein once wrote: “I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction, the world will then have a generation of idiots.”
The adverse consequences extend beyond the workplace and into employees’ homes, as communication technologies encourage people to access their work well into the evenings and holidays. This can have a hugely negative impact on quality of life. How often have we seen families out for dinner where parents (and children) are looking at their mobiles for text messages or emails rather than listening to one another? How often have working parents come home to access emails on their smartphones at dinner or when the family is spending time together? Can this lack of communication within the family create problems that have a negative spillover effect into the workplace?
Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating dumping emails or texting, but suggesting that we all must begin to manage this technology, rather than let it manage us. Employers should be encouraging their employees, as some are currently doing, to avoid accessing emails at night or during their holidays, unless absolutely necessary. They should provide guidelines to employees on how to minimise overload on others (for example, cc-ing only if others are directly involved in the issue); avoiding sending emails to colleagues in the same building – thereby encouraging face-to-face interactions; and ensuring that anybody sending an email should let the receiver know how important their response is, and by when their response is required.
Some firms – whose employees are not listening and are continuing to overload themselves and others – are shutting down the servers at night. I don’t advocate this, but a strong message has to be given if our businesses are to be more healthy and more productive. As John Ruskin, the social reformer, wrote in 1851: “In order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: they must be fit for it, they must not do too much of it, and they must have a sense of success in it.”