There is little debate these days that computers and mobile technology have made many businesses more efficient. Information is available instantly, and you and your team can remain in contact around the clock.
But speed and being connected all the time aren’t always a good thing when your health is concerned.
According to Judy Village, certified professional ergonomist, adjunct professor with the UBC School of Population and Public Health and president-elect of the Association of Canadian Ergonomists in Vancouver, several physical and emotional health risks – such as musculoskeletal injuries, vision problems, anxiety and stress – are more prevalent these days, thanks in no small part to our reliance on computers and mobile technology.
In the name of efficiency, Village says, jobs that traditionally had more movement and variety built into them now are more static and sedentary. As more tasks are completed at a desk, risks for conditions such as tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome and neck and back pain are increasing, along with vision issues related to looking at screens for much of the day.
Following the rules of ergonomics is important when designing a workplace, including elements such as maintaining a neutral posture, relaxed shoulders, straight wrists and a supported back, Village says. However, those efforts can only go so far. “Even the best setup won’t be helpful if you’re sitting all day,” she says.
Further, Village says, this “efficiency at all costs” attitude increases the likelihood of mental and emotional health problems stemming from issues such as isolation and job demands.
Mobile devices carry their own set of troubling health risks, including pain, nerve damage and vision issues stemming from overuse. In the past few years, former executives for some of Silicon Valley’s top technology companies have suggested mobile devices and the applications we run on them may be no less addictive and destructive than gambling and drugs. For example, Sean Parker, former president of Facebook Inc., admitted late last year that the social network was designed to hold users’ attention for as long as possible and give them occasional hits of dopamine – the reward chemical in our brains. That admission suggests that digital technology may carry a more nefarious health risk than we thought.
According to Julie McCarthy, professor of organizational behaviour with the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, stress and anxiety have increased significantly in Canada over the past decade. Although McCarthy doesn’t blame technology entirely for that upswing, she says academic data from several sources suggest technology probably plays a role.
As mobile devices keep you connected, McCarthy says, always being “on” can cause problems. Technology’s connectedness has created a culture in which we find getting off the grid difficult, she says, and the line between work and your personal life becomes blurred. “Those boundaries,” she says, “are becoming very fuzzy.”
That encroachment of work into your personal life is a health issue. Work recovery time – those off-duty periods when you detach from work psychologically, exercise and relax with your family – is critical to maintaining good health. Downtime helps nurture your resilience, which prevents you from suffering the acute effects of stress and anxiety.
You may be sacrificing precious downtime in order to remain connected to work. You would be hard-pressed to find a colleague who hasn’t logged into his or her work email during off hours.
Many people keep their smartphones within reach from their beds. Research suggests that the light these devices emit affects production of melatonin, a hormone that’s essential to healthy sleep. (McCarthy says her family keeps their devices on another floor during sleep hours.)
The problem, McCarthy points out, is that unlike drugs or gambling, our mobile devices have a positive impact on our lives, too. For example, you might use your smartphone or tablet to pursue leisure activities such as reading an e-book, listening to music, learning a new skill via YouTube or catching up with friends. And the ability to work off-site provided by these devices can mean the difference between taking a much needed vacation or skipping it altogether.
The key strategies when taking a so-called “workcation,” McCarthy says, include setting strict rules for when you will access your device to work, then vowing to turn it off completely at other times.
One solution is to “live in the moment” and be aware of your surroundings – rather than what’s on your device. And that means letting go of your “multitasking” habit. Research indicates that turning off your devices and embracing the present has positive health benefits, such as stronger immunity, improved cardiovascular health and reduced depression, McCarthy says.
“When we’re always distracted and able to offer only partial attention to our tasks or our families,” McCarthy says, “that’s hard on our well-being and detrimental to our productivity.”