January is the time for new year resolutions to conquer addictions: give up alcohol, eat less, stop checking Facebook and Twitter as often, and so on. But what if the addiction is collective — it cannot be kicked by one individual while others are still abusing?
Email is a prime example, as a French law that came into force this week recognises. The law is intended to give employees the “right to disconnect” by making large companies negotiate with their staff times when they are not expected to pick up their smartphones and answer messages. This promises the digital equivalent of clocking out from a factory.
It is easy to poke holes in this dirigiste approach from the country that imposed a maximum 35-hour working week. The ability to leave the office and stay in touch can be a boon for professionals: it is better than having to hang around in case the boss wants you. And what about time zones? Should staff in Hong Kong be able to ignore inconvenient emails from New York?
But the French government is right in a couple of important respects. First, email and other forms of digital communication, from corporate social media to messaging tools such as Slack, can erode the boundary between work and personal life in harmful ways. Second, it is a collective challenge: it is hard for one person to ignore emails as long as others keep sending them.
Companies and employees are codependent on email and other forms of digital sprawl such as global conference calls, on which hours are wasted invisibly. The worst offender is often not the enterprise itself but power-hungry middle managers who consume staff time without it appearing on time sheets.
Like pollution, this has a collective cost but not one that is easily accounted for. The immediate impact is on individuals who do not detach from thinking about work except when they are asleep. The continuous, always-on nature of digital communication — emails could pop into your inbox at any time — makes it hard to switch off awareness and gain repose.
Work email is a nasty form of addiction because it does not provide much pleasure, unlike other kinds of digital communication, such as posting on social media. We may regret spending too much time on Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat and the rest but they do offer a reward in the form of amusement, entertainment, flirtation, boasting and interaction with friends.
Emails are more of a duty: they have to be read and acknowledged if you want to stay in the loop. One study found that 70 per cent of emails were opened within six secondsat work, and it took a minute per interruption for the recipient fully to regain concentration. That is an awful lot of business disruption, given that 120bn work emails are expected to be sent and received daily in 2017.
When the habit extends beyond office hours, the loss of detachment can become pernicious. Another study of about 300 employees in different industries found that the inability to disengage caused “chronic stress and emotional exhaustion” among some, although others coped better.
Most employers are happy to put managers and professionals under stress, provided it does not get out of hand. Many “high-performance” workplaces are designed to operate like this. But chronic overwork caused by not allowing breaks from work has a clear impact on productivity: tired and jaded employees produce less.
This sounds obvious; it is also well documented. A study of first world war munitions workers in the UK found that if they worked excessive hours one week, their productivity suffered the next. More recently, pre-school teachers in Germany were found to be happier and more effective in class if they had taken the weekend off.
Limiting work used to be simple: it was just a matter of imposing shorter shifts. The seamless, addictive nature of digital communication makes it harder. But companies have a stake in realising “how damaging social media and tech addiction can be”, as Adam Alter, author of Irresistible, a forthcoming book on digital addiction, argues.
France’s new law is well designed in asking companies and employees to work out the right solution for themselves. Some organisations are highly distributed and employ many self-directing professionals who prefer to spread their work out without being physically overseen. If email lets them work efficiently from home, it would be stupid to block them.
But email easily becomes a collective addiction. It suits some executives to dispatch batches of emails late at night, perhaps after their children are in bed, but the same messages can create a stressful interruption for the recipients who are expected to respond. The stress falls on employees but the cost in lower productivity eventually works its way through to their employer.
Collective New Year resolutions to alter behaviour may have no more chance of lasting than individual vows; they are probably even harder to keep. But making a resolution is a start.