Mobile technology has transformed how we work and undoubtedly improved it in terms of communication, efficiency and flexibility. But with 24/7 access to our working lives is there a chance that all this progress is to the detriment of our health? Charlie Turner of System Concepts reports.
“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything” (George Bernard Shaw).
Practitioners agree that cases of repetitive strain injury (RSI) and other musculoskeletal problems associated with mobile technology are on the increase. This may be a result of the trend towards virtual working, leading to increasing numbers of people using a variety of devices in ways that put more strain on their muscles, tendons and joints.
A growing research base also specifically considers the psychosocial aspects of the increased use of mobile technology at work. Mobile devices offer great benefits in terms of faster communication, flexible working, increased accessibility and availability, but this may not always be good for our mental health. Rapid changes in technology at work may negatively affect the mental health of some workers under certain conditions. For example, working parents with a clearly defined work–life balance may find it stressful to have to send emails outside of office hours.
What is occupational stress?
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines occupational stress as an “adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work”. Excessive pressure refers to aspects of the work itself, such as work pace, performance targets, deadlines and overall workload. Other types of demand could include poor relationships with colleagues, conflicts of interest, being away from home, etc. Psychologists collectively refer to these aspects of work as “stressors”.
Everyone has a different tolerance to certain stressors at work, so two employees exposed to the same stressors are likely to show different levels of stress. One may cope well and thrive on pressure, while the other will cope poorly. An individual’s tolerance to stressors will vary throughout their lifetime, depending on their health, age, life outside of work, family commitments, etc. There are no hard and fast rules that determine whether a particular employee will suffer occupational stress or not. In fact, it is an underestimated problem at work because so many people are reluctant to admit to stress for fear of being stigmatised.
Hormones, such as adrenaline and other chemicals in the body that interact with adrenaline, cause the short-term symptoms of stress. Sometimes known as the “fight or flight response”, the symptoms include:
increased heart rate
retention of carbon dioxide in the blood and tissues
These symptoms usually go away after the stressor disappears and once the body stops releasing adrenaline. However, repeated exposure to stressors can result in long-term problems related to chronic over-release of adrenaline. This disrupts the normal hormonal pathways of the body. The symptoms of long-term stress can include:
stomach and digestive problems
increased response to pain
poor recovery from musculoskeletal injury.
What is the relationship between occupational stress and mental health?
The HSE defines mental health as “how we think, feel and behave”. Mental health and occupational stress are different, but occupational stress and mental health problems often go together. Prolonged stress may result in a mental health problem, or it may worsen an existing problem that previously did not affect an employee’s work. Around one in four people experience a mental health problem at some point in their lives, although these are usually not severe. The most common mental health problems are anxiety and depression.
Anxiety is an uncomfortable feeling that involves thinking about events in the future that may or may not happen. It causes feelings of worry, uneasiness or distress.
Depression is a condition that involves extreme feelings of sadness, despair or inadequacy that may last a long time.
Anxiety and depression are not the only mental health problems. Less common conditions include psychotic disorders such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, which affect about 1 in 100 people.
The symptoms of occupational stress and common mental health problems are similar, so it can be hard to distinguish between the two. For example, chronic fatigue, mood swings and insomnia are symptoms of long-term stress and common mental health problems. However, it is possible to experience occupational stress and mental health problems separately from each other. There are some key differences between the two.
Occupational stress always has a work-related cause.
Common mental health problems can have a work-related or non work-related cause.
Some common mental health problems do not have any obvious cause.
Organisations can manage occupational stress by removing stressors at work.
Doctors will usually treat the causes of common mental health problems by prescribing medication.
The relationship between mobile technology, occupational stress and mental health
The new generation of mobile workers check their emails, send texts and type away at smartphones and tablets in cafes, trains and even on the street. Employees use mobile technology into the evening, or feel pressured to respond to emails and texts outside of their normal working hours (eg in a global business with offices in other time zones). This can lead to an unhealthy working culture that puts excessive pressure on employees to sacrifice their work–life balance in order to catch up with work outside of office hours.
The amount of occupational stress that any given device puts on an individual will affect the relationship between mental health and mobile technology. One of the key ergonomics insights of the past century is that employees who perceive they have more control over their work tend to be less frustrated, feel more competent and perform better. This model also applies to mobile technology at work. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that employees who feel they are competent with, and can control, mobile technology at work will notice less anxiety over its usage and less depression because they have failed to master it. Organisations that provide a good level of training in new technologies for employees will therefore notice fewer problems with stress and mental health.
Ways in which employers can help
Ergonomics theory suggests that the best approach to preventing occupational problems has two elements. The proactive element aims to prevent occupational problems from happening in the first place. The reactive element aims to resolve occupational problems swiftly once they have happened. One of the ways that employers can develop a good working culture is to use this combined approach. In the context of mobile technology, occupational stress and mental health, both elements should promote the benefits of mobile technology, while avoiding the negative aspects such as occupational stress and mental health problems.
Risk assessment and control is something that employers have a moral and legal duty to do when it comes to occupational stress. The HSE Management Standards approach is one example of a proactive element that all employers can use. It does not matter what size the company is. The designers of the approach intended it to be flexible and applicable to small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) as well as larger companies. There is specific guidance for SMEs on how to implement the measures in a way that takes into account their more limited resources. Whatever size a company is, those at risk of stress continue to be employees who have more to lose from working longer hours. This includes parents with children living at home, people who provide care for disabled relatives and people with pre-existing mental health problems.
These are some examples of the proactive elements a combined ergonomics approach might include.
Risk assessment and control measures (such as the HSE Management Standards approach) that aim to identify at-risk groups and assess risks before problems occur.
Policies and procedures designed to implement the use of mobile technology sensibly (eg identifying who should use mobile technology based on their specific job tasks).
Promote a good work–life balance from the top of the company downwards (eg through management briefings, via board meetings, internal events/initiatives and management training).
Make staff aware of company guidelines on the hours of use of mobile technology, depending on their job role.
Provide IT training and assistance for employees who use mobile technology.
These are some examples of the reactive elements a combined ergonomics approach might include.
Monitor staff to pick up problems quickly, either through regular appraisals or via line management.
Provide a system where employees can notify the relevant person or department of a problem (eg confidential advice lines, via the company intranet).
Counselling services that use best practice approaches to discussing occupational stress and mental health issues (eg cognitive behavioural therapy).
Occupational health teams with the resources and expertise to make reasonable adjustments to job roles.
Employee assistance programmes.
Work adjustments and flexibility around working hours for those who may have commitments outside of work.
Return to work programmes for people who have to take time off for medical reasons.
Ultimately, employers need to choose the best approach that works for them depending on the resources they have available. For SMEs it may not be possible to implement all the above measures, but there are plenty of ways in which all companies can promote the wellbeing of their staff. Regardless of size, complexity or geographical location, the important thing is to balance the needs of employees with specific business requirements.
Mobile technology has some real benefits that provide excellent business benefits for employers. If managed properly, these benefits can be realised fully by not putting excessive pressure on employees or creating an unhealthy working culture. Employers have a duty to do what they can to prevent occupational stress and remove stressors. Employers do not have to treat mental health problems at work, but they do have a moral duty to prevent them and to recognise when occupational stress is a factor.
There are many ways that employers can help their employees and get the business benefits of mobile technology. The best approach is one that uses ergonomics guidance to implement proactive and reactive elements into the work system. This may require an element of organisational change. There are positive aspects to changes that put the psychosocial needs of employees on a par with business requirements. The important thing is that organisations manage change with employee consent, implement it sensibly, and monitor its effects.
Working Anytime, Anywhere: The Effects on the World of Work Report, 2017, ILO/Eurofound
“The Impact of New Technology in the Workplace on Mental Wellbeing”, in Mental Health and Wellbeing, O’Driscoll M P and O’Driscoll E C (authors), Cooper et al (eds), 2010, Wiley & Sons