Smartphone 'creep' disturbs life balance

NARELLE HENSON AND LIBBY WILSON
Last updated 12:34 29/06/2013
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Kiwis are increasingly unable to juggle work-life balance because of the "creep" of smartphones and other devices, with an employment lawyer saying the boundaries between work and home life will soon be tested in court.

Increasing demands on workers, combined with some people's inability to switch off from work, meant it was only a matter of time before cases ended up in court, said Andrea Twaddle, director of employment and resource management law at Hamilton firm DTI.

"There is scope for it to be tested and I would expect either employees to raise a claim of disadvantage through stress or health and safety, or an employer to say, 'Look, in order to ensure the safety of this workplace, we are putting these parameters around work conditions'."

She said technology "can be seen as creating potential risks for stress or simply being an unreasonable amount of hours employees work".

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development figures show Kiwis work longer hours than in many other countries, with 13 per cent working more than 50 hours a week.

The OECD average is 9 per cent, with only 3 per cent of workers in Denmark working long hours, while Britain (12 per cent), and the United States (11 per cent) follow Kiwi trends.

Twaddle said some larger Waikato employers were moving towards "wellness policies" that covered issues such as gym membership discounts for employees, or whether people should have remote access to their work.

Waikato University philosophy student Derek Riley, who is looking at the impact of work-life balance on medical professionals for his PhD, said mobile devices were providing greater flexibility than ever before but the line between work and home time was becoming increasingly blurred.

"Unfortunately, today with the high technology we can be contacted 24/7," he said. "It has started to creep into family time, and you can get what they call work creep.

"There's work time, there's family time, there's playtime, and people need to respect those times."

Riley said on-call health professionals such as surgeons and doctors, and nightshift workers, who formed the basis of his study, were particularly affected by a lack of work-life balance.

Although a supportive culture and working flexible hours were company issues, individuals could help themselves by developing resilience and a support network, and being solution-focused.

Defining boundaries between work and home was important, he said.

Ross Keith, chief executive of advisory firm Advantage Business, said work-life balance was "hugely" affected by technology.

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He foresaw discussion about guidelines or contract conditions surrounding it in the next few years.

The increasing number of emails being sent outside standard working hours was an interesting discussion point.

"Do [employees] claim overtime if they've been doing emails off their phone from home?"

But although employers needed to be wary of expectations that employees should be contactable 24/7, constant availability could be a bonus for those who were their own boss.

Keith's self-employed wife got even when he was checking work emails on a smartphone, and she is now enjoying the flexibility her matching phone allows her.

"It's not necessarily a handcuff to the company," he said.

When it comes to employees, Keith said many did not want to disconnect, and some found it as hard to tune out email notifications as it was to ignore a ringing telephone.

Bosses could help by encouraging staff to turn their devices off, ignore them, or leave non-urgent requests for work time.

Association of Counsellors president Jonathan Loan said workers lacking balance often presented with problems such as being unable to sleep and questions revealed they were being pursued by work emails.

"It's almost like your workplace is invading your home."

Employees who never disconnected were more likely to need sick days, or burn out, he said, so employers who created a culture that respected out-of-work hours were doing themselves a favour.

Waikato District Health Board has started the ball rolling, with chief executive Craig Climo saying a healthy work-life balance was critical for his staff.

"We are investing megabucks in technology to make business more efficient, effective so that we are doing the right things and doing them well."

Climo oversees 6250 staff providing around-the-clock care, and said health professionals' tendency to be passionate, driven and hardworking meant limits were needed.

"Some of what we have to do is protect people from themselves."

An internal study into junior doctors working nightshift revealed they were being called every five minutes.

"We need a better system of holding calls, prioritising calls, so we are working on that."

Gallagher Corporate Services executive Margaret Comer said the company, which employs about 500 people in Waikato, needed key players to be available outside New Zealand business hours.

"But they are rewarded for that when it comes to travel, taking leave and profit share. We always recognise that."

The company also had a strong focus on family. "It is very, very important. Families are what support employees, and a good employer must recognise that."

Tertiary Education Union national women's committee vice-president Cat Pause said some members were making more time for family by setting their own boundaries, for example, telling students they would not respond to emails after 5pm.

- The Dominion Post

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