Calling a customer back after work and checking work emails before falling asleep – the smartphone enables us flexibility in our working hours. The customer is happy, the boss appreciates our commitment - but does it pay off? A recent study conducted by the Leibniz Research Centre for Working Environment and Human Factors raises doubts about this. Apparently, using the smartphone after office hours for work purposes affects the next working day – employees are more sensitive to pressure at work and become exhausted more quickly. Those sleeping well after being online, however, hardly notice this effect the following day. The study was published in the "International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health".
According to the German Federal Statistical Office, virtually every second person accesses his or her work emails at home, most frequently using a smartphone. Technology permits flexible work organisation without spatial or temporal boundaries. Indiscriminate usage of these possibilities, however, harbours the risk of undesirable consequences for one's mental health.
Diary study examines short-term fatigue consequences
Industrial psychologists from the Leibniz Research Centre for Working Environment and Human Factors at the Technical University in Dortmund (IfADo) investigated the way work-related smartphone use after office hours affects mental well-being the following working day.
For this purpose, they conducted a diary study. 63 volunteers filled in online questionnaires twice a day for 10 working days. Every morning they had to specify how intensively they had used their smartphone the evening before for work purposes, and indicate how well they had slept that night. During the afternoon, they were questioned about their work tasks and prevailing symptoms of exhaustion.
The study confirms that remaining constantly accessible is onerous. A great deal of energy is required to swap back and forth between our roles as employee and private person. Different expectations on the part of the employer on the one hand, and family and friends on the other, are associated with the roles. At the same time, attention and concentration have to be maintained. This interplay can quickly surpass our personal capacities.
The day after - when the battery runs out too quickly
The consequences are not long in coming; this work-related reaching for the smartphone has a direct impact on the following day. Should the job require us to control our impulses, resist distractions or overcome inner resistance, then we perceive these demands as far more onerous than on other days. The consequence is that we then feel disproportionately deeply fatigued. "Work-related smartphone use in our leisure time, just like many tasks during working time, requires us to control ourselves and adapt our behaviour to the current situation. Such "self-controlling processes" require energy. Should this be depleted, our performance declines", explains IfADo study author and industrial psychologist Lilian Gombert.
Sleep well to prevent the consequences of stress
Reaching for your smartphone does not cause problems every time. Test persons, who slept well after continuing to work online, found this had no further affects on their well-being. The reason for this is that the quality of sleep plays an important role in our rest and recovery. If we have slept well, we start the next day with more energy. "In the case of a project deadline, answering emails after office hours cannot always be avoided. Then it is important, however, to ensure good and sufficient sleep", says Gombert. Fixed sleep routines can be a help – going to bed at the same time every day, for example.
On a company level, it is important to have comprehensible rules governing the use of smartphones for professional purposes. Senior executives play a decisive role in this, for they not only communicate guidelines and expectations regarding accessibility after work, but also actively support and comply with them.