I wonder more and more these days whether there exists some kind of mental or even physical addiction to work. I was training a workshop recently in which one of the participants was constantly checking his Blackberry, even though I had asked everyone at the beginning of the day to turn off their phones or put them on silent if there was an urgent reason they needed to be contactable. Later that morning he and I did a role play and afterwards his peers were giving him feedback. While his peers were speaking directly to him he was checking his emails! I had a chat with him at morning tea and let him know the impact of what he was doing. He tried to stop after that and the situation did improve somewhat although he was still checking his emails regularly – just more discreetly.
He’s not the only one though. I notice when I’m training the higher up in the corporate food chain the participants are, the harder it is for them to put their smart phones aside and for that matter, stay or even attend the workshop. How many workshops have I been in with high flyers in big corporations where their assistants come in and whisper in their ear and out they go never to return. And, at the certain risk of generalising, I now assume the attendance rate will be as low as 50% if the workshop is aimed at General Manager level or higher. I understand this. They are dealing with important and urgent matters that need to be dealt with asap and, given their expertise or their client relationship or their responsibility in the matter, they are the only person who can solve it. But I also notice their attention span is severely limited even when they are in the room (and yet again I am generalising – but I will keep going anyway). When I am in the front of the room training I feel such pressure to be super engaging because I can see clearly when the participant’s attention wanders and the subtle move of the Blackberry under the table. I am competing/vying for their attention and too often I lose. When it comes time to go into break out groups or do an activity, often up to 1/3 of the room leaving only to return ½ way through the discussion or activity and find it difficult to catch up and so the opportunity for learning is reduced. Have a look at this YouTube link which talks about the downside of constantly changing tasks.
And trainers are not always the best models of behaviour. I was working with a big multinational investment bank and we were doing a Diversity Workshop. As is typical with Be Learning we were performing some Forum Theatre scenes where we acted out various case studies where people were dealing with issues of diversity and the purpose was to try and promote inclusive behaviour in the workplace. After we acted out the scene I would then facilitate a robust discussion about the themes and issues played out by the characters. The actors would often remain on stage during this discussion and would remain in character and interact with the audience when questioned. I was in the middle of facilitating a particularly lively discussion when I turned around to see one of the actors, centre stage, checking his iPhone. And, no, I don’t think it was a character choice! He then did it again later that day when the Head of Human Resources, our client, was making a speech to the attendees and the CEO. I was very embarrassed and stunned that the iPhone couldn’t be put away for the duration of the 90 minute session. The pull must have been very strong for him.
And I am certainly not immune. I don’t like being separated from my computer. I left it at work once overnight and felt very anxious and uncomfortable as I walked out the door. I also can’t leave it too long without checking my emails or I start to feel anxious. Only at Christmas do I stop thinking about checking for a day or two, only because of the knowledge that others are on holidays and it is very unlikely there will be any emails – especially Christmas Day. Nonetheless I have a default set up which forwards all my work emails to my Hotmail account just in case I can’t get on the network and retrieve my work emails. Which means I spend a lot of time deleting! But it’s my preference when faced with no access to the VPN.
Once again I am consulting the oracle, Google, to find out about email addiction in particular. At the first site I investigate there is a great article written by someone who compulsively hit their ‘check email’ button at least 100 times per day. The addicted person writing the article (it made me smile) was a psychologist and they were investigating email addiction, why it occurs, and what can be done to counteract it. Apparently it is not a physical addiction but it seems it’s very real psychological behavioural addiction and attributed to something psychologists call “operant conditioning” which, simply put, means we do it because we sometimes get ‘rewarded’ when we open an email. The fact it only happens sometimes is the reason why we are conditioned to check our inbox so often. It’s called ‘variable interval reinforcement schedule’ (say that ten times quickly).
If the ‘rewards’ happened every time we checked our emails or if they stopped altogether the rewards would be consistent i.e. always good or always bad. Then our curiosity would be sated and we wouldn’t feel compelled to check just in case there was reward, we would know the outcome before we checked. Operant conditioning was first discovered in experiments with lab animals using a reward and punishment system.
One of the effects of email addiction is a relatively new condition called ‘Blackberry Thumb’ which is caused by the repetitive movement of the thumb as it scrolls or taps out messages. Another term coined to describe the addiction is Crackberry.
I don’t have a Blackberry but I do work a lot on the train with my laptop. I don’t use a mouse. Because I have got so used to it I often don’t use a mouse even when I am at my desk or working from home. I find after doing a big tender or program design which requires many hours at the computer that only after a week or so I have very sore joints in the thumb and forefinger of my hand that operates the touch pad. With lots of people using laptops now in transit or replacing the standard PC station with laptops and working longer hours the ergonomic and RSI implications are great. Besides the physical impact of email addiction there is also a potential impact on general physical health such as weight and fitness. As mentioned in Work Life Balancing Act Part 1 relationships, stress levels, and face to face communication can also suffer.
So what can we do about our email addiction if we have one…..?
Because it’s a fundamental psychological process happening to our animal brains it means the behaviour happens automatically, or in spite of our conscious selves telling us we should do otherwise. So how can we ‘uncondition’ ourselves? We don’t want to remove the rewards, so instead we need to weaken the strength of the link between action and reward. For example – we could delay the amount of time between checking and then receiving the new email. This will have two positive outcomes. One is, we no longer receive the instant ‘hit’ and the second is that if we wait a bit longer, the likelihood of having a reward in there each time is much greater. While this may seem contradictory, it actually lessens the strength of the compulsion to check because the outcome is certain. Practically speaking, this could be achieved by doing some simple things like turning off email alerts. You could also select your email inbox to update every 15mins or every 30mins instead of the default it is probably on which is every 3 minutes. Did you feel anxious when you just read this? I’m smiling because I felt anxious when I wrote it. That’s our operant conditioning at work. This solution probably wouldn’t make a big difference to your recipients but it will decrease the constant checking we do or the instant replies which can interrupt the flow of our work. It will decrease the anxiety we have when we don’t check.
Another more radical alternative is to attend the Thousand Berries Rehab Clinic….
Check out further links at the end of the article if you want to read more on this subject and also look at my references…. In the meantime I am laughing out loud because in the middle of writing this I am constantly checking my inbox and replying to email alerts. Ahhhh…..the humanity.
This post is written by Claire Jones, Senior Consultant, Be Learning