Swamped by digital tsunami

08:02, Jul 17 2013
Tilmann Steinmetz
BALANCING ACT: Wellington technology consultant Tilmann Steinmetz has found the perfect way to maintain a good work/life balance - turn your phone off.

Stress and overload from cellphones and email are causing workers to be unproductive for an average four hours each week, new research suggests.

The encroachment of work into after hours and digital distractions in the office have also caused an "invisible pandemic" of poor productivity in the workplace, according to results from the Workplace Productivity Report.

Authored by behavioural neuroscientist Dr Lucia Keleher and employment specialist Kate Boorer, the report surveyed 435 Australian workers about distraction and overload in the workplace.

It found that 85 per cent of respondents could be more productive at work - more than half admitted they were frequently distracted.

Describing distraction as the "nemesis" of productivity, the report found each employee was unproductive for an average of four hours per week because of stress and overload.

With the digital world meaning people were connected constantly, 80 per cent of workers said they responded to email at home and 72 per cent took work home. This could lead to burnout and poor productivity.


"The results from this study clearly indicate that distraction due to the deluge of ‘stuff' we are all incessantly bombarded with has created a ‘silent or invisible' pandemic of poor productivity."

The study found workers fell into two broad categories, with 20 per cent coined "early adapters" and the remainder "constrained defeatists".

Defeatists believed their feeble productivity was caused by poor culture or outdated practices at their workplaces, while adapters coped well with a 24-hour work cycle and were often employed by progressive businesses.

Wellington cloud computing company Xero's general manager of human resources, Natasha Hubbard, said with the company experiencing explosive growth, it was "all hands to the pump".

This meant many staff were working long hours, answering emails from home and even taking phone calls while on holiday.

To ensure employees did not burn out, it was important the company listened to its workers.

"We promote a culture where it's OK to say: ‘I'm tired, I need to come in late tomorrow, I need to take some time in lieu because I worked all weekend'."

Business NZ chief executive Phil O'Reilly agreed the most productive employees were those who felt in control of their situation, and more companies were embracing policies such as flexible working hours to achieve that.

It was essential employers and employees agreed on some ground rules about technology.

"It needs to be made OK to turn their phone off and not respond. What's unhealthy is when employers hand out these devices and expect they will get answered at all times of the day and night.

"Treating an employee, and the boss for that matter, simply as a human being is important . . . I think technology can be empowering rather than some sort of slavery."

Wellington employment lawyer Susan Hornsby-Geluk said while she was not aware of any cases that had focused solely on being available outside work hours, it was becoming more prevalent in general workplace stress cases.

Employers had to ensure the health and safety of workers, but employees needed to ensure they were not putting themselves in overwhelming situations.

"If an employee said to their employer: ‘I'm not prepared to check emails outside of work', an employer could not compel them to do so."

Deputy State Services Commissioner Sandi Beatie said many public servants were required to work outside the office or be on call and mobile technology was a useful tool that allowed them to have more flexible work arrangements.

Tilmann Steinmetz works as a consultant for Eagle Technology and has a clear policy in managing work emails at home, although he admits he does not get as many as some of his colleagues.

When the 42-year-old does check his account periodically in the evenings, it is rare for him to respond unless the matter is urgent. "I don't believe anyone [at Eagle] actually expects me to answer right away, depending on the issue. When I'm on leave I actually switch off the [email] synchronisation."

Eagle had a flexible work policy and it was lucky to be in an industry where working from home was simple.

After taking a day off sick, Steinmetz said it was no problem for him to remain at home the next day and work remotely. But generally he preferred to go into work, then switch off after knocking off for the day.

His friend worked from home and set his own hours, which was fine, but not the ideal situation for everyone, he said.


Make your calendar, not email, the first thing you open during the day. Email is often given precedence because of its immediacy, but time management coach Chris Macintosh says focusing on the calendar helps workers prioritise their most important work first.

Set out specific periods for checking your emails and stick to them. While not suiting every job, having set times to sort out emails boosts productivity for many people. Make a decision on every email as you read it - either delete it, delegate it, do it now or de-activate it by turning it into a task or appointment on your calendar.

Learn to say no. Just because you are invited to a meeting does not mean you must go. Mr Macintosh recommends busy workers block out time in their calendar with jobs, so they do not feel forced into tasks they have no time to fit in.

Set out what you will do tomorrow before leaving work today. This will help with the next day's efficiency, and it means you will worry less about work and sleep better at night, leaving you refreshed and ready for the day.

The Dominion Post