Trapped in electronic slavery?

Aug 24 2006 by Brian Amble Print This Article

If you can't live without your Blackberry, you may be suffering from an addiction that is every bit as damaging and hard to break as one to hard drugs and one that employers might one day be held liable for.

If the 24/7 connectivity offered by the Blackberry and similar devices might once have seemed like an employer's dream come true, it could be time to think again.

According to a U.S. researcher, employers who encourage this sort of non-stop communication could end up being held liable for encouraging electronic addiction among their staff.

Gayle Porter, an associate professor of management at the Rutgers University School of Business at Camden, says that the relentless pace of technology-enhanced work environments is creating a source of stimulation that may become addictive.

And while workaholism has been a widespread phenomenon for some time, she argues that employers may soon be held legally liable for these addictions.

"Information and communication technology (ICT) addiction has been treated by policymakers as a kind of elephant in the room; everyone sees it, but no one wants to acknowledge it directly," Professor Porter says.

Owing to vested interests, signs of possible addiction are often ignored

"Owing to vested interests of the employers and the ICT industry, signs of possible addiction - excess use of ICT and related stress illnesses - are often ignored.

"Employers rightfully provide programs to help workers with chemical or substance addictions - addiction to technology can be equally damaging to the mental health of the worker."

Some Blackberry addicts can only manage a few minutes without checking email, she said. Another tell-tale sign of addiction is a user who concentrates on the device and ignores everything and everyone else around them.

But as a separate survey by European mobile communications giant T-Mobile has found, a whopping nine out of 10 users feel that the Blackberry and other forms of "always on" mobile technology are a real business lifesaver.

The study of more than 250 BlackBerry usres found that more than a third had been "rescued" by their BlackBerry on more than five occasions. And unsurprisingly, many also feel far more stressed when they do not have their precious device with them.

The T-Mobile poll found that one in 10 would be "devastated" if their BlackBerry was taken away, while more than a third said they would feel more stressed when out of the office. A further one in five also felt they would be unable to cope with their current workload.

This being so, Professor Porter acknowledges that it may be unfeasible to regulate how much people use technology

"However, it is reasonable to imagine a time when policy-makers recognize the powerful influence of employers that sometimes results in harmful excess among the workforce," she warns.

"The pressure for using technology to stay connected 24/7 may carry employer responsibility for detrimental outcomes to the employees."

To support this assertion, Porter points to tobacco litigation in the United States as a model of how the law and legal strategies evolve over time to find harm.

"Legal scholars describe tobacco litigation occurring in three waves, each of which moved plaintiffs closer to success. In the 1950s, the theories put forth laid the groundwork for the legal decisions in the 1990s onward."

The element of employer manipulation is important to determining liability. "If people work longer hours for personal enrichment, they assume the risk," says Porter.

"However, if an employer manipulates an individual's propensity toward workaholism or technology addiction for the employer's benefit, the legal perspective shifts.

"When professional advancement (or even survival) seems to depend on 24/7 connectivity, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between choice and manipulation."

While Porter is not aware of any current court cases examining the subject, she submits that employers concerned for the health of their workers and their bottom lines may wish to keep an eye on the matter and encourage employees to walk away from their Blackberries, email, and cell phones while on vacation.

But many users themselves remain unconvinced. As T-Mobile found, more than six out of 10 feel that the Blackberry brings with it a better work-life balance by enabling them to stay on top of both their business and personal lives wherever they are.