Does the smartphone enables employees to achieve work-life balance?

Work-life balance is perhaps one of the most debated topics in developed countries in the 21st century, given that technology has enabled us to work from virtually anywhere with electricity and a working internet connection. Interestingly, on December 19th, 2006, The Economist published an article about work-life balance, with a notion that is very different from today’s context – the article discusses how technologies meant for individual’s leisure has taken over workplaces (Work-life balance, 2006). This article was published during a time when cloud computing was just a concept, and the proliferation of mobile technologies and mobile internet were immature and slow. Work was thus historically confined to workspaces as defined by the organisation, largely due to the immobile nature of traditional paperwork and security of sensitive documents. Due to this physical separation, it was easy to define work as an obligation, while life was considered any leisure activities that you do outside work. Work-life balance is thus the time parity that an individual seeks to allocate to both work obligation and leisure. In the recent years, however, the sudden surge of internet-enabled mobile devices known as smartphones, gave us new ways to store data digitally and transmitted securely (Lin, 2016). Almost fifty percent of grown-up now possess a smartphone (Planet of the phones, 2015) and this enables them to be contacted easily when they are out of the traditional workspace. As a result, the lines between work and play are increasingly blurred. Despite that, I do not agree that the smartphone enables employees to achieve work-life balance due to (1) the economic repercussions in an always-on smartphone culture, and (2) the health concern on the prevalence of smartphone addiction.

The smartphone brings about an increasingly always-on culture. With a device more powerful than a supercomputer and internet speeds faster than our dial-up modem connections from the 20th century (The Future of Computing, 2016), we can expect the smartphone to slingshot humanity to a new era of hyper-connectivity. A professional living in a city in the United States of America sums it up by saying, “If the social norm is to be on all the time, you don’t want to be the odd one out” (Schrobsdorff, 2017). An always-on smartphone culture may seem promising at first as economists usually associate increased connectivity with improved productivity, which in turn increases economic activity. The proponents of smartphone always-on culture may even argue that smartphones empower employees with freedom and flexibility to work at any time or place, hence enabling economic activity to be carried out in new unchartered areas. Employees can now close quick deals in a casual café setting rather than sit through long formal meetings. Some experts even pointed out that employees with families can bring their work home to complete later, after the planned family time in the evening (Vanderkam, 2015). However, the always-on culture that a smartphone brings does not always translate to increased economic activity. Studies have demonstrated that employees who are expected to be always contactable via smartphones while away from the office have increased levels of stress (Schrobsdorff, 2017). A stressed workforce has shown to exhibit a higher level of absenteeism (David, 2008), which in turn reduces productivity and economic activity. In addition, despite the benefits of flexibility that always-on smartphone culture brings, the drawbacks are equally significant. An expert noted that the always-on smartphone culture may decrease productivity amongst employees as they end up working and accessing personal sites and contents at the same time (Lin, 2016). If this unproductive behaviour is disregarded, the extra hours put in by these individuals may impress on others that the organisation values the unconditional availability of the employee over productive work done (Lin, 2016). In addition, the ignorance may incur further economic costs to the organisation when employees experience burnouts from the stress of the always-on smartphone culture. Most organisations are, in fact, still not ready to deal with this new phenomenon (Laura, 2015). Ultimately, an always-on smartphone culture reduces organisational economic activity through lower productivity without enabling employees to achieve work-life balance from its perceived flexibility. As such, some experts even called for the always-on smartphone culture to be curbed through organisational policies, such as limiting access to emails when away from the office (Lin, 2016). This will not only ensure that the employees stay productive during work hours, but also give them the necessary downtime to rest. Therefore, the always-on culture smartphones do not help employees achieve work-life balance as the economic repercussions overshadowed the flexibility.

An addiction is a negative behaviour exhibited by a person when a third party restrains the said activity (Grant et al., 2010). Similarly, a smartphone addiction may leave an individual less satisfied as compared to when they are without the device. In fact, smartphone addiction in undergraduates has shown to decrease mental and emotion health (Kumcagiz & Gündüz, 2016). This study demonstrates that even without factoring the use of the smartphone for work, smartphone addiction is prevalent and detrimental to an individual’s health. It would thus be irresponsible to cohere employee to use their smartphone for work. Of course, the opposition may argue that an increasing dependency on the smartphone does not equate to addiction. There may be new opportunities and curiosity of the smartphones given that the exponential improvement in speed and power in the last five years. However, a study noted participants experienced withdrawal symptoms when abstaining from smartphone use. The symptoms range from anxiety to panic. Some of the participants even experience phantom vibrations as though the smartphone is still on them (Emanuel et al, 2015). This study demonstrates that the smartphone addiction is real and similar to other addictions such as substance abuse. Therefore, it is ineffectual to proclaim that smartphones will be able to help employees achieve work-life balance when they degrade the health of the user.

In conclusion, I disagree with certitude that the smartphone at present enables employees to achieve work-life balance, given that the two major consideration of (1) economic activity reduction arising from an always-on smartphone culture and (2) the negative health impacts of smartphone addiction. Future behavioural studies and research may eventually shape policies to negate these two dominant drawbacks and integrate smartphone use for work-life balance, but the current quandary should not be disregard at the moment.

References:
Schrobsdorff, S. (2017). There Is No Right Way to Unplug from Work. Time, 189(3), 19-20.
Lin, G. (2016). Working Wherever, Whenever. Credit Union Management, 39(10), 38-40.
Planet of the phones - Smartphones (Feb 26, 2015). The Economist. Retrieved March 22, 2018, from https://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21645180-smartphone-ubiquitous-addictive-and-transformative-planet-phones
Work-life balance (Dec 19, 2006). The Economist. Retrieved March 22, 2018, from https://www.economist.com/node/8450071
Kumcagiz, H., & Gündüz, Y. (2016). Relationship between Psychological Well-Being and Smartphone Addiction of University Students. International Journal of Higher Education. Vol. 5, No. 4, 2016, 144-156.
Grant,  J.E.,  Potenza,  M.N.,  Weinstein,  A.,  &  Gorelick,  D.A.  (2010).  Introduction  to  behavioral  addictions. The American journal of drug and alcohol abuse, 36(5), 233-41. http://dx.doi.org/10.3109/00952990.2010.49188
Vanderkam, L. (2015). Work/Life Integration Is the New Normal. Fortune, 171(4), 139.
The future of computing - After Moore’s law (March 12, 2016). Retrieved March 25, 2018, from https://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21694528-era-predictable-improvement-computer-hardware-ending-what-comes-next-future
EMANUEL, R., BELL, R., COTTON, C., CRAIG, J., DRUMMOND, D., GIBSON, S., & ... WILLIAMS, A. (2015). THE TRUTH ABOUT SMARTPHONE ADDICTION. College Student Journal, 49(2), 291-299.
David J., P. (2008). Perceived Behavioral Integrity: Relationships with Employee Attitudes, Well-Being, and Absenteeism. Journal Of Business Ethics, (2), 313.

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