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This article was first published in the June 2017 Ireland edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

While 24/7 access to email and social media is good for marketing, networking, recruitment and collaboration, researchers are discovering that the always-on culture is bad for productivity and health. 

 Tom Jackson of Loughborough University says that people who deal with their email while engaged in other forms of communication experience stress-related health problems. ‘Our research shows that stress is exaggerated by multi-tasking email alongside other communication media such as phone and in-person meetings,’ he says. ‘This can have a detrimental impact on an employee’s physiological and psychological stress levels.’ He adds that employees’ lack of awareness that they are suffering from physiological stress could lead to long-term health conditions if the issue is not addressed. 

Eoin Whelan, a lecturer at the JE Cairnes School of Business & Economics at NUI Galway, and an expert on the effects of social media, says: ‘Excessive use, particularly multi-tasking with computing devices, not only hampers productivity, but is associated with mental health problems such as depression and social anxiety.  

‘While companies do have a responsibility to protect workers from the technology they provide them with, individual workers also need to take responsibility and ensure they have a healthy relationship with technologies like email. For example, putting the smartphone away when you are working on a demanding task, or having quality time with your family, can go a long way to reducing technology-induced stress.’

Personal presentation

Recruitment is one area where social media has had a significant impact. Employers use networks like Facebook and YouTube in their talent campaigns, and Skype to cut down on travel expenses when interviewing. Jobseekers research opportunities and receive push notifications on their smartphones when suitable roles are advertised. 

Social media allows jobseekers to promote their skills and expertise, but the ready accessibility of information means candidates must be careful about their online reputation. A recent YouGov survey found that one in five employers has turned down a candidate after checking their online activity. Aggressive posts, references to drug use, and poor grammar and spelling were the top three factors that put employers off. 

In an employability guide, PwC Ireland has some helpful digital makeover advice. It explains: ‘Your online image is increasingly crucial in helping you land your dream job. Use social channels to show the world the kind of person you are and how you would like to be seen by a prospective employer. Find ways to illustrate your skills and expertise, your experience and your interests from what you post and who you follow.’

Employers also need to monitor their own online reputation. Negative reviews or social media criticism about a company can put off jobseekers. Companies should have policies to manage any negative information that appears about them online and to protect themselves from inappropriate use of social media by employees.

The proliferation of mobile devices and social media has brought new risks of bullying, defamation and leaking of confidential company information. Employers can be held liable for what employees do on social media even outside working hours, warns Joanne Hyde, head of employment law at Eversheds Sutherland. She says: ‘It’s important that organisations anticipate and manage the risks associated with employees’ online activities. Last year’s decision in the case of William McCamley v Dublin Bus highlighted the benefits of having a comprehensive social media policy in place. 

‘Organisations should ensure their policy differentiates between personal and professional use of social media, and sets out permitted and prohibited uses of social media during and outside of working hours. Employers should communicate the policy to all employees so that everyone understands what is expected of them.’

Performance-related issues caused by excessive use of mobile devices is another consideration. Smartphones are very good at keeping users constantly engaged, with push notifications and alerts. According to Deloitte’s 2016 global mobile consumer survey, 86% of Irish adults have a smartphone and 91% of smartphone users say they use it at work. Almost half also check their phone during the night. The resulting sleep disruption can lead to mistakes at work, poor engagement and reduced productivity, according to University of Washington researchers. Sleep-deprived leaders are also less charismatic and more likely to abuse staff.

One way to tackle the problem, says Deloitte, is to discourage the sending of emails outside normal working hours or by disabling email servers during designated timeframes. Employees can also help themselves by disabling push notifications and turning off their phone at night.

With new platforms appearing all the time, it’s important to review and update your email and social media policies regularly. Any data-related vulnerabilities you identify in the process will need to be addressed before the general data protection regulation comes into effect on 25 May 2018. 

Daisy Downes, journalist