Smartphone addiction makes workers more productive, but not better-paid

By James Robinson , written on May 8, 2014

From The News Desk

Thanks to our mobile devices, there is no moment of our day when we can’t be online in seconds. I’ve written it before, but digital media is eating up our time at a rapid pace. For every one hour less we spend on desktop computers and in front of TV, we spend two more on mobile devices. We’re spending two hours and 42 minutes on mobile devices each day now, according to Flurry. We look at our phones 150 times a day. Huge industries have been created inside this rote compulsion to distract ourselves. A spot on the mobile home screen is worth as much as $1 billion to a company, analysts have estimated.

Yes, these devices mean that you can watch TV in bed more easily now and use Facebook on the train home. But a series of studies compiled in a new article in Mother Jones, points out the more troubling flipside to this -- thanks to mobile devices, for more and more people, the workday never ends. We’re never not working now, our smartphones serving as digital leashes tying us to our offices.

The research cited by Mother Jones shows that smartphones are giving some of us a bit of a bum deal. Good Technology polled 1,000 workers and saw that 68 percent of them had checked their work email before 8 a.m. Half of all respondents checked their email in bed and over a third checked their email at the dinner table.

The net effect of this is that the work week has got a lot more brutal. A survey by the Center for Creative Leadership saw that 60 percent of “smartphone-using professionals” were pulling 70-plus hour weeks, working in some capacity for 13.5 hours of the day and for five hours on email remotely over the weekend. The American Psychological Association reported that 44 percent of adults checked email daily on vacation and 1 in 10 checked their email every hour.

It’s prompting a raft of societal anxiety. Pew found that two-thirds of people check their phones compulsively, even when they’ve not received an alert. Over 40 percent of people sleep with their phones by their beds for fear of missing something, and one-in-four find the worst thing about our phones to be that we’re never out of reach of anyone. Over a third of all people reported that they’d received complaints about not responding to messages fast enough.

We’re more productive, but we’re not better paid. In the Pew study referenced above, more people still talked about their phones as time-savers, not time-wasters. According to the Economic Policy Institute, from 2008, right after the release of the iPhone, through to 2014, annual growth in worker productivity shot up from 14 to 23 percent. But as smartphones add more hours into the workday, growth in worker compensation has been stagnant at around three percent.

Mother Jones concludes that this digital excess is making workers less productive and less happy. Others have gone further. Harvard Business Review published its own research in January suggesting that the blue light of smartphones inhibits melatonin, making it harder to sleep. From a study of 162 mid-level managers, it saw that smartphone use after 9 p.m. correlated with an increased risk of worker disengagement, workplace injury and unethical behavior.

The answers to this are unfortunately not simple. French labor unions passed a law forcing employers to make their employees disengage after 6 p.m. Others, like media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, say it is a matter of discipline, ignoring the demand for digital immediacy and setting windows aside within the day to correspond.

But maybe the first step is just knowing that these toys we love so much are a digital double-edge sword with the ability to hoover up all of our time, both personally and professionally.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]