October 15, 2012
Like most well-adjusted Americans, I check my smartphone every 5 to 10 seconds. If I don't, my hands sweat and I feel guilty for depriving the world of all the interesting things I have to say or text or tweet.
This anxiety always seemed perfectly normal. Until I learned about "nomophobia."
Apparently we have become so reliant on mobile devices that a term was created to describe the nervousness we experience when separated from our electronic self-affirmation machines. Could it be that I, America's most-beloved workplace advice columnist, am nomophobic?
A study released in February — sponsored by the British cellphone technology company SecurEnvoy — found that about two-thirds of the population suffers from this phobia. And since work is one of life's primary ways of keeping us away from our cellphones and iPads, I decided to learn more.
"It's not necessarily a clinical disorder at this point, unless it's causing real impairment in a person's social, occupational or personal life," said Elizabeth Waterman, a clinical psychologist at Morningside Recovery Center in Newport Beach, Calif., which offers a nomophobia recovery group. "But it can be a real problem for many people."
The symptoms include: frequently checking the cellphone; frequently making sure the cellphone has battery life; using it in inappropriate places, like during business meetings or family dinners; and frequently checking to make sure the phone is within arm's reach.
(Based on that description, it's a wonder I haven't died of nomophobia.)
The big workplace question here is: How does an employer manage workers and their need to remain connected throughout the day?
The answer is going to vary depending on the company. But the key, as always, is clear and concise communication.
Employers need to be reasonable about letting employees access their smartphones or other devices. Issuing a flat-out ban is rarely effective and can make people feel like they're not trusted by management.
But if you spell out reasonable guidelines for in-office cellphone use, you can call people out when they don't follow the rules.
"There's nothing wrong with disciplining people for that, as long as the employer is consistently applying the same standard across the board," said Brian Jackson, a labor and employment attorney with the firm Fisher & Phillips.
There's a lot of blather out there about workplace distractions, everything from fantasy football to online shopping. But I believe managers have to put trust in their workers, with the knowledge that it won't be hard to tell when someone is violating that trust and not getting work done.
"I'd look at, 'Are they getting their job done and are they getting it done well?'" Waterman said. "Is the phone a hindrance or is it a helpful tool? It's not easy to hide your phone use like people think. People are going to notice."
And if being away from a phone causes anxiety, allowing a person access to that phone might actually lead to a more productive workday.
An offshoot of this technology addiction is that many people are so attached to their personal devices that they want to use them for work as well. For example, a company might offer a worker a laptop but that person would much prefer to use her iPad.
"An individual may not have much right to an expectation of privacy when they're dealing with the company's computer," Jackson said. "But if it's your own computer, you have a level of expectation of privacy. So the company's going to have to figure out a way to balance your privacy with their protectable interests."
Here again, there needs to be some clear communication about how a "bring your own device" situation can work.
Jackson suggests that employers set up a stand-alone policy (not one that's part of the regular employee handbook) so employees "understand that along with the right to bring your own phone or laptop, there are some rights you're going to have to give up." That could include allowing a third party to audit your device to make sure you're handling company information properly. It could be allowing the company to remotely wipe out the memory of the phone or computer if it gets lost or stolen, thus protecting any proprietary information.
Companies also need to spell out any contributions they are making to the cost of cellular service and make clear whether that money counts as a bonus to the employee or comes with any tax implications.
Jackson said he expects more and more people will be pushing to use their personal phones and computers for work.
"People are addicted to these devices," he said. "From a company standpoint, if the employee's going to be more productive using a different kind of technology, it makes sense to accommodate that."
Returning to the phobia aspect of all this, Waterman said it's not a bad idea for employers to approach mobile device use from an educational standpoint. The very fact that nomophobia exists indicates that many of us are teetering on the edge of a problem, and this can certainly involve struggles with balancing work with other parts of our lives.
"If people's lives come out of balance for too long, they're going to burn out," she said. "Employers can educate employees about what a work-life balance is, how they can attain it, what the signs are that they may be slipping out of balance and how to correct that."
That's good advice. Now if anybody needs me, I'll be huddling in a corner, holding my smartphone like a security blanket and wishing I'd never learned that nomophobia exists.
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