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In Paul Miller’s “The Digital Workplace: How Technology is Liberating Work” book we also explore some of the potential negative outcomes arising from the fundamental shifts in work. We believe one of these is an “addiction” to being connected to the Digital Workplace – an end-result which can undermine and erode any distinction between work and family life.

Addiction is an emotive word. It has some clinical definition around it, so perhaps we have to caveat how it is used. There is also a commonly-held belief that there is a tendency to conveniently label everything as a “disorder.”  However even if we are looking at “addiction” in a more loose and populist sense, perhaps such as a compulsive tendency to work disruptive hours -– then we believe it is still a significant problem.

In the book Paul Miller writes:

“As technology improves, being connected anywhere, anytime becomes increasingly normal. Alongside this, we find that the Digital Workplace with the power it gives us makes work more enjoyable and satisfying. So what we will see is a new ‘health epidemic’ due to work addiction. More and more people, both freelance and employed, will find themselves working more and more hours, because they can and because they love the work. Weekends, evenings, holidays will all blend into work as ‘rest time’ decreases. Work addiction will capture media attention and cause healthcare concerns in much the same way obesity has.”

“It is ironic that one of the reasons for this will be greater work satisfaction and fulfilment. The problem is that if we can work whenever we want and we enjoy the work we do, we will work more and more hours, until gradually every aspect of our day becomes colonized by work. Work addiction detox problems will emerge, the media will lap the issue up because they can relate to the issue themselves and employers will have to take this seriously (while all the time quietly enjoying the productivity benefits of their ‘always on/always there’ staff )”

As the Digital Workplace can be accessed from anywhere at any time it makes working, and therefore over-working, just that much easier. It can be seen as either the cause or the catalyst for work addiction.

Work addiction is regarded as a serious issue in many countries.  Just as there are organizations for gamblers and alcoholics, there are also branches of “Workaholics Anonymous” all around the world.  Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the US organization is based in Menlo Park, nestling closely to California’s Silicon Valley. In Japan there is even a word (Kar?shi) which means ‘Death by Overwork”.

Surveys and research also bear out that work addiction in general needs to be taken seriously. In 1999, long before there was the infrastructure and connectivity in place for a decent Digital Workplace, a CIPD survey of 8,000 UK-based workers concluded that 1 million people in the UK considered themselves to be ‘addicted’ to work.

A 2010 study in Spain suggested that 12% of its working population had a work addiction “disorder”, with 8% working more than 12 hours. Meanwhile in 2007 the International Labour Organization estimated that 22% of the world’s working population worked more than 48 hours in a week, a time that it refers to as “excessive”, although many of these instances were merely to make ends meet.

So with work addiction a problem in its own right, the Digital Workplace may be adding fuel to the fire. There is also another extra dynamic in relation to the DW and “addiction” which is the potential addiction to technology.  In the book we cover a case study, and also cite research which suggests that BlackBerrys can be addictive.  These studies have tended to look at BlackBerrys being used in the workplace, so really in the context of how they have helped to fuel addiction to work. But there are also studies which have suggested that technology, particularly mobile devices, are addictive in their own right.

For example recent research at the University of Maryland suggests that when students were away from their technology for 24 hours four out of five students felt, what the Daily Telegraph describes as “significant mental and physical distress, panic, confusion and extreme isolation when forced to unplug from technology for an entire day. “   In fact the majority of the students had to go back to their devices during the 24-hour period.

This sort of experience may be more acutely felt by the ‘Facebook’ generation who are addicted to being connected (and perhaps is a ticking time bomb which we may encounter further down the line) although the issue may be experienced by all generations. For example in the book, Paul Miller describes not dis-similar feelings at a time when he was unable to use his iPhone.

In many ways the Digital Workplace cuts across both the addictive qualities of work and connected technology, and it will be interesting to see whether organizations start to take this problem more seriously, and what, if any, effect this will have on how they organize their Digital Workplace.

Paul believes that many employees secretly feed the addiction, because they like the “productivity benefits” which arise from the extra hours worked.  Ultimately it may be that only legal precedents will force companies to do more to protect workers when they find themselves liable. However it is also possible that they may act when they can see damage to productivity or where worker groups have significant sway – for example Volkeswagen recently restricted access to their BlackBerry email server outside working hours.

Addiction is a fascinating topic.  As the Digital Workplace starts to become a dominant factor in the way we all work, more information about potential addiction, the negative outcome from it, and also how employees and organizations can combat it, are likely to emerge.

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