Does intense ICT use after work help or hinder psychological recovery?

Cristina Quinones’ conference paper on ICT use and recovery – presented at CIPD’s 2016 Applied Research Conference –  can now be downloaded from the CIPD website:

https://www.cipd.co.uk/Images/does-intense-ict-use-after-work-help-or-hinder-psychological-recovery_2016_tcm18-20004.pdf

Summary:

Information communication technologies (ICTs) have become a popular leisure platform (for example gaming, social networking). Psychological recovery during our leisure time is vital to replenish psychological and cognitive resources spent at work. In this paper I test whether ICT use for private purposes can be an effective recovery strategy after work through a diary study design. I found that the extent to which ICT use after work leads to detachment and relaxation depends on an individual’s compulsive tendencies. Based on these findings, I discuss ways in which we can test whether our leisure activities are actually helping or hindering recovery.

Social inclusion through digital participation

By Cristina Quinones (cristina.quinones@open.ac.uk), November 2016:

Over the last few days I have been very lucky to participate in discussions about issues of social inclusion through digital participation thanks to Professor Leela Damodaran’s invitation. Leela is the Principal Investigator of the SUS-IT project (sustaining IT use by older people to promote autonomy and independence). A three-year project that exploring the use of IT by older people which was funded by the New Dynamics of Ageing Project, which receive joint funding from the five research councils.

The Sus-IT team worked with over 1000 older adults in a mix-methods design that lasted for over 4 years and amongst other things the researchers found that:

  1. Older people want to be connected: they value the benefit and independence that going online gives
  2. Benefits of being connected include personal health, self-efficacy, skills and capabilities, social interaction economic and life changes, and civic engagement

Unfortunately, there are very strong barriers to sustain digital engagement of older adults stopping older adults from reaping these benefits. The main ones across the board seemed to be poor design and the lack of ICT learning and support provision for people who are no longer in places of employment where ICT support is available as a given.

It is this second aspect that was the focus of the workshop. The lack of support becomes a major issue for users who are no longer in the workplace. Routine IT tasks such as anti-virus software installation and updates often undertaken by IT departments for those in employment are suddenly left to the individual who may home alone, without help and support. Whilst some seek help from their family members or from friends and neighbours, not everyone has these resources and even if they do, the increasing demand on accessing health and social services through digital means sometimes means that privacy of those who are not digitally engaged can be jeopardised (or perceived to be so) by having to rely on intermediaries.

When I was hearing some of the examples of respondents I suddenly began to think about when I left my parents’ home to England ten years ago. Up until then, my brother had done all the IT stuff for me. Frankly I had no interest whatsoever, back then it was a means to an end and the means itself interested me very little. However, when leaving Spain I suddenly panicked, my brother had helped me chose a good laptop for my studies but what would I do now without his help regarding music download, virus control etc.? At that point that feeling was quite daunting, purely because up till then I just didn’t have to worry (well I knew I had to put up with his “I’ll do it later”). After a few months and some trial and error here, and help of friends there I finally realised how empowered I felt by not having to rely on him. However, the pace of technological advances makes me realise how ephemeral this empowerment really is.

Thinking back of the younger version of me, I was about to start my working life and postgraduate studies and there were of course huge changes in my life, perhaps one of the most significant was to start writing and speaking in a foreign language I hadn’t used for a number of years! Also, being successful in my PG studies required me to have good level of digital engagement. IT departments at the University and peer interaction made that quite easy, in fact I don’t remember this being a problem at all.

Transitioning from work to retirement and to older adult life has other physical, psychological, cognitive and social changes which can become real barriers for people to stay on the ‘wave’. One of the changes that trigger my memory of losing my brother’s IT expertise is the transition from being in employment with IT department one day and suddenly being at home with no such support at all. Quite a scary and daunting thought. The work of the Sus-IT team showed that unfortunately this is not just about missing out on certain leisure activities, but disengaging digitally for older adults in a country where there is an increasing provision of services digitally including access to health and social services, can seriously threaten the quality of life of older people.

Luckily, the Sus-IT study tells us that you don’t have to convince older people to be engaged digitally, they are in, but they want you to listen to what they really need to sustain their engagement:

  1. They need readily available independent trusted advice and troubleshooting (no sales pitches!)
  2. Opportunity to try devices to see what best fits their needs
  3. Designers of IT-enabled services to consider their needs from the design

I was inspired with the presentation from Long Eaton 50+ forum classes and drop-in sessions, informal introductory sessions on using laptops and tablets, and informal ‘troubleshooting’ sessions. This has been successfully running for 11 years free of charge to its users. Considering its success – which is evident by the enthusiasm of its members and the long life of the socially relaxed and informal support – our question was what can we learn from this and how can this be replicated/adapted in other parts of the country? Discussions are ongoing as the complexity of the different ways in which local councils are run and funded, and the singularities of each community have to be acknowledged but two levels of work were identified:

  1. Local activists for grass-roots organisation – friends, neighbours also some ready-made local groups.
  2. Policy-makers, people who understand the importance of the evidence gathered by Sus-IT and are able to influence at the strategic level.

I am so happy to have been part of this exciting real evidence-based discussions especially considering the important mix in the audience some academics but mostly 50plus people and local councillors, and library representatives, all key stakeholders in this important digital inclusion project.

OFCOM report

By Christine Grant (Christine.grant@coventry.ac.uk ), August 2016:

Dr Christine Grant, Principal Lecturer and Occupational Psychologist, School of Psychological, Social and Behavioural Sciences, HLS, was invited onto the BBC News Breakfast couch on 4 August 2016 to discuss a newly released OFCOM report on internet usage. Also present for the discussion was an independent consultant who had written a book on digital detoxing. The main theme of the discussion centred on the report findings suggesting that internet usage was detracting from people’s personal and working lives, leading to time spent away from family and friends. The survey completed by OFCOM of 2025 adults and 500 teenagers estimated that 1 in 3 adult internet users (34%) had sought relief through a ‘digital detox’, seeking a period of time away from technology to improve their lives.

BBC Breakfast 3

Christine was asked for her views on ameliorating the impact of technology, and based on her research over the last 10 years advised that greater self-awareness can help to identify negatively perceived behaviours and that technology use can be moderated through self-regulation, adjusting our behaviours accordingly. For example, considering when boundaries between work and non-work activities have been crossed and to consider strategies to switch off at appropriate times. She suggested that we should also consider individual preferences when working with others as this can also help to moderate our behaviours. Also briefly discussed was that some organisations across Europe are adopting policies on handling email use, such as reducing access to email in the evenings and at weekends, Christine advised that, although these types of policies are attractive, a ‘one size fits all’ solution can fail to meet individual differences.

BBC Breakfast 1

Flexible Working – the work-life balance solution of choice?

By Almuth McDowall (a.mcdowall@bbk.ac.uk), June 2016:

In April 2016, the BBC featured an article on work-life balance and flexible working citing a number of examples where organisations measure job performance by output and not by time spent at our desks. Where such flexibility is implemented and embraced, employees can effectively self-regulate and set their own working hours as well as deciding where they work. Is this the future of work as we know it?

Well, yes and no, and we certainly should take heed from the existing evidence base. Although flexible working is often seen as a work-life balance solution of choice, the evidence for its benefits is rather sobering at present. There is little evidence for a business case [1] and flexible working tends to only ‘work’ when people can choose their own solutions, otherwise their health may be negatively affected [2]. So we need to have a say in the solution we create or sign up for.

Flexible working, particularly when people are not office-based, also relies on trust and good will, as it’s harder, and some would argue completely unnecessary, to monitor what everyone is doing. But there are down sides to such flexibility which is the lack of ‘switching off’ opportunities. The BBC article highlights that there is often a price to pay. For instance, you may be able to go on holiday at short notice, but also be expected to ensure that everything is ‘ticking over’ when you are away. This implies of course that there is sufficient resource on the ground to cover absence; this is comparatively easier in larger organisations where a short term handover can be facilitated, but much harder in Small to Medium Enterprises where there is not the ‘slack’ in the system to enable such flexibility.

Another issue which deserves attention is the actual nature of the work. Some jobs are portable, but also have more confined structures, and actual deliverables. Other jobs are mainly knowledge-based, or indeed require a great deal of interaction with others making it much easier to say ‘job done’ and switch off and enjoy time away from work.

So can flexible working work? There is certainly no evidence that a 9-5 day is good for all of us, and neither is regularly working overtime. But as so often, the answer is probably ‘it depends’. Some of us will always be happier with a regular, predictable job where we can close a real and not virtual office door and go home. There is nothing wrong with that. Some of us are happier negotiating our own job structure and way of working, as long as we deliver the goods. There is nothing wrong with that either. Some of us are somewhere in between, requiring lots of flexibility at certain times, and occasionally more structure. There is also nothing wrong with that! It is important that we have a ‘deal’ which suits us, and brings the best out in us, but also that we negotiate with those around us, as modern workplaces need effective communication, collaboration and a sense of purpose.


[1] De Menezes, L. M., & Kelliher, C. (2011). Flexible working and performance: A systematic review of the evidence for a business case. International Journal of Management Reviews, 13(4), 452-474.

[2] Joyce, K., Pabayo, R., Critchley, J. A., & Bambra, C. (2010). Flexible working conditions and their effects on employee health and wellbeing. Cochrane Database Syst Rev, 2.

Bending the environment to our technology use

By Svenja Schlachter (s.schlachter@surrey.ac.uk), May 2016:

Recently, I cameshutterstock_228417220 across a newspaper article about Augsburg, a German city, which has implemented traffic lights into the pavement before pedestrian crossings so smartphone users looking down on their device can be made aware that it is not save to cross [1]. I have heard similar stories before. There have been examples of pedestrian lanes designated for smartphone users, for example on stairs in a university in America [2] or on a pavement in China [3] and in Belgium [4]. In Sweden, street signs appeared that seem to caution against smartphone-using pedestrians crossing the street without paying attention to traffic, similar to signs that can be found close to day nurseries, schools or playgrounds cautioning drivers against children running across the street [5].

Usually when I see these newspaper articles, my first reaction is to smile and shake my head: “How ridiculous!” But actually, most of these measures are meant to be ironic, they are meant to hold up a mirror to us to show that, maybe, it is not that ridiculous after all. “Smombie” is another good example of this: this neologism, a combination of “Smartphone” and “Zombie” was announced the German Youth Word 2015 and describes people who walk around staring at their smartphone unaware of their surroundings. Again a smile, a headshake. However, when you walk over campus or on the high street, the smile fades a bit; Smombie actually comes too close to the truth for comfort; it actually is a relatively accurate description. Which leads us back to Augsburg, the German city with traffic lights in the pavement. This measure appears to go a step further than some street signs and a bit of paint on the pedestrian lane which can be taken down or washed off relatively easily; this is a more permanent measure reportedly installed after a deathly accident has occurred [1].

So currently, the solutions of choice against Smombie-like behaviour appear to be to bend our environment to our technology use, rather than change our behaviour. This links to Almuth’s great blog post in which she argues that company-implemented one-size-fits-all solutions are not up for the job of solving the Smombie-problem at hand. Again, the change of the environment in form of external measures (e.g., servers not forwarding e-mails after a specific time like implemented at Volkswagen [6]) appears to be preferred to controlling our own technology use. This discussion has recently become highly relevant again in light of the announcement of the French Government to give French employees a “right to disconnect” [7]. The French Government aims to request companies to implement an official policy or guidelines regarding the availability of their employees, for instance formally stating that there should be no work-related e-mail communication during workday evenings or at weekends.

Although I fully support the idea that companies clearly signal support for taking downtime, both explicitly and implicitly, I do not think that a Government-implemented rule is the right way to do so. Why do I think so? One of the main conclusions drawn from our recent one-day event, the e-Resilience Conference 2016 funded by the Balance Network, was that technology use is something highly individual: people have different preferences, different motives and different approaches to their technology use. This is also illustrated by the differing opinions of the e-mail ban in France. Whereas some people welcome the planned out-of-hours e-mail ban because it presumably gives them a legal right to disconnect, others recoil from the idea of their flexibility being hampered or even taken away by such bans. So how could a one-size-fits-all solution possible cater to everyone?

At the end of the day, I think we should try to take responsibility for our own technology use. We keep blaming technologies for tethering us to work or for destroying our relationships, but we avoid seeking the blame with ourselves, the people using those technologies. Many appear to prefer to give away the baton; to have something technological or externally controlled in place that renders them incapable of using technology or reminding them of their surroundings rather than just not using it or using it in a conscious and purposeful manner.

But why is it so hard for many people to keep their own technology use in check? Why do some prefer being kept from using technology by others, their employers, the Government? Why do many people appear to find it hard to unsnap from their device and pay attention to their surroundings instead? Well, technology use is quite similar to many things that are convenient, but not necessarily good for us, such as having an unhealthy diet consisting of ready-made meals, not exercising enough, smoking, etc. Getting up from the couch to go for a run is hard at first, but after you have done it, it feels great and it gets easier when you make a habit out of it. Giving up checking our devices at all times might be just the same. It is a habit that we have picked up in recent years with technology use getting more and more mobile and convenient. But a habit that has been learnt, can be unlearnt and can be replaced by a more conscious technology use. We just have to make a start, even if it is tough to begin with. But while it is important to make our own choices, it is also very important to be aware and respectful of others making different choices.

e-Resilience conference_Image11

Some tips presented at our e-Resilience Conference 2016


[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/article/36153741/german-city-puts-traffic-lights-on-pavements-for-smartphone-users

[2] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/11685396/Utah-university-latest-to-introduce-texting-lanes-for-pedestrians-glued-to-their-mobile-phones.html

[3] http://www.theguardian.com/world/shortcuts/2014/sep/15/china-mobile-phone-lane-distracted-walking-pedestrians

[4] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/belgium/11674215/Antwerp-introduces-text-walking-lanes-for-pedestrians-using-mobile-phones.html

[5] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/sweden/12139462/Road-signs-warn-pedestrians-not-to-use-smartphones.html

[6] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-16314901

[7] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-36249647

Reflections on the “UK always on culture” from Hungary, Greece and France

By Almuth McDowall (a.mcdowall@bbk.ac.uk), April 2016:

Over the last couple of weeks, life has been very busy! I had the chance to visit Hungary on holiday with my girls, then Greece and France for work travels. What wonderful and thought provoking experiences I had, which I am sharing with you here. Our first stop, Budapest, was full of lovely surprises. My friends were quite right when they said, “if you like Vienna, then you will love Budapest!” We had a great time exploring the sights and walked everywhere. The welcome could not have been more friendly, and we loved the architecture and the pace of life, which is generally much slower than in London. “Can’t we move away from Britain?”, my girls started begging me? I am not sure if this really came from the heart, or was just a part of teenage “the grass is always green on the other side” type attitude. I could not help but notice that conversation in the evenings was sparse, as the older two girls were permanently glued to their mobile phones checking Instagram and Snapchat. Only my nine-year old reads one book after another on her nook. But our phone were also a great enabler, helping us book tickets to the Spa but avoid the queues, and last minute seats at the Opera! This was a new experience for all of us. We agreed that on an average day we all prefer Bring me the Horizon, but we were glad that we went! Having such new experiences meant that we all returned to the UK refreshed despite all the walking and travelling. But there was no rest for the wicked, in this case me.

Less than a day to repack and off to Athens to the congress of the European Academy of Occupational Health Psychology (http://www.eaohp.org/conference.html). The congress and my hotel could not have had a more evocative location, right in the centre in-between the temple of Zeus and the Acropolis! More on this in another blog entry. Whilst busy, the congress also afforded the opportunity to walk around Athens, as Plaka with its myriad of small shops is nearby. Whilst I was initially irritated by the many request to look and buy, with a discount of course, I decided after a while to speak to shop keepers where I could and learn more about the challenges they face. A lady owning a handbag store turned out to be a fellow psychologist who cannot find work in this field in the current economic circumstances. She is now leading a campaign to support local manufacture and business, as many of the goods on sale are cheap imports from China or India which destroys the local infrastructure. I happily supported the cause by buying bags for my girls, and internet is affording us the opportunity to stay in touch, a real benefit of being “globally connected”.

From Athens, I was off to France, to visit the University of Aix-en-Provence and Marseille for an intensive workshop with French, Belgian and German researchers organised by Marina Burakova-Lognier and Edith Galy-Marie. We do not hear all that much about research in France in our field of work psychology, and I learned that one reason for this is that some institutions are rather suspicious of French scholars publishing in English. As a result, they keep to French, which means that those of us with rusty school French are unlikely to read the original publications. A real shame, as I discovered many shared interests around the always on culture, both from a psychological but also sociological perspective around how work is changing fundamentally. My colleague Professor Jan Dettmers from Hamburg Medical School also shares an interested in the phenomenon of “extended availability”. It was also the first time that I met an individual who combines work on a second PhD in Chronobiology (the first one was on sociology) with work as a fire fighter (https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Marc_Riedel2.); who had fascinating insights into various forms of on call duty.

But the most interesting aspect was to watch and learn how our French colleagues conduct their working day when visitors come to town. Lunch breaks were scheduled for two hours, complete with three courses and wine on the table which I politely declined (honest!). The pace of work was slower and more reflective than I am used to, not least as we were conversing across different languages. This was a good thing however, as having to explain ourselves more slowly and simply than we usually would facilitated reflection on terms and concepts we take for granted – for instance, has technology become a separate domain in our lives, or is it a tool to help us manage boundaries more effectively, getting in the way of recovery when we overdo it? We are fired up to collaborate on a European scale, so watch this space. Of course, technology is making this possible, as we have already set up online project management tools, and are busy communicating via Whats App and other channels.

There was also a happy ending to my girl’s “always on attitude”. My husband bought them old fashioned e-readers whilst I was away. Rather than being glued to their phones, they are now glued to books – electronic or not, the content is the same, so everyone is happy.