Smartphone use at work linked to reduced stress and improved work-life balance

New research has revealed that using smartphones for personal purposes while at work can lead to reduced stress, as well as lower levels of conflict between work and personal life.

The study was conducted by University of Galway and University of Melbourne at the European branch of a global pharmaceutical company which underwent a transformative change in its phone policy – shifting from a restrictive approach to personal phones, to open access for non-work purposes.

Led by Professor Eoin Whelan, at University of Galway’s J.E. Cairnes School of Business and Economics, the research highlights the potential benefits of moderate mobile phone usage in the professional setting, with no discernible impact on worker performance.

The company had originally banned personal use of phones in the 1990s for health and safety reasons, amid concerns of employees being distracted while working around dangerous chemicals.  Staff had since voiced dissatisfaction with the ban and reported feeling disconnected, while senior management felt the branch was viewed as technophobic because of the ban and that it was hampering competitiveness against other branches of the company. Prior to the study taking place, only senior management at the company could bring their personal mobile phone into the workplace.

Over the course of a year, the research tracked about 40 employees who availed of the new policy and used their personal smartphones when at work, and a similar number who maintained a self-imposed ban by leaving their phones behind them when they stepped inside the work premises.

The insights gained from the experiment were explored through qualitative interviews.

The study found:

Despite fears of smartphone distraction and loss of focus, work performance did not decline when the ban was lifted
Work-life conflict – the perceived conflict between the demands of work and personal life – significantly declined for workers who had access to their phones compared to those who did not
Employees with access to phones reported being able to help with family issues during the day, helping to reduce pressure on their partner
Spreading personal communications throughout the day also meant employees were not overwhelmed when they turned on their phone after work

While previous research has primarily focused on the consequences of technology and work-related communications impacting on people outside of the workplace, this study stands out for its innovative approach in investigating the reverse scenario.

The ground-breaking findings contribute to understanding of the interplay between technology and the sought-after work-life balance while also offering practical insights for organisations aiming to foster a healthier and more balanced work environment.

Speaking of the findings, Professor Eoin Whelan, University of Galway J.E. Cairnes School of Business and Economics, said: “Rather than enforcing a ban on smartphones in the workplace, our experiences in tracking the introduction of smartphones in this company suggest a more effective strategy would be to establish an organisational climate where the company expectation for smartphone behaviours are known – for example ensuring that they are not used in meetings or in the canteen, with adherence monitored by employees themselves.

“Managers must realise the unintended consequences of forcing a smartphone ban. Preventing phones in the workplace can increase work-life conflict, which in turn has significant implications for work performance, job satisfaction, absenteeism, turnover intentions, as well as general wellbeing.”

The research noted other studies into personal use of smartphone in the workplace, with some reports suggesting employees spent an average of 56 minutes during a working day on their smartphone for non-work related tasks, and that they check their phone an average of 150 times a day.

The full paper is available to read here

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