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11 January 2013

Smartphones at work: Dutch unions raise health fears (report)

More than 800,000 smartphones and tablets were sold in 2012 – not all for private use. A growing number of employers are kitting out their staff with them, especially in the "knowledge business". Concerned about the prospective health impacts on workers of overusing these new work tools, Dutch trade union confederation FNV commissioned a report from the University of Amsterdam which was published in late December.

The report entitled Techno-stress. Recognising an emerging risk reviews the scientific literature on the health threats - mainly psychosocial risks and musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) – from overusing smartphones and tablets. Because no epidemiological survey has yet been done in a work setting, author Jan Popma has relied primarily on research among young users still in education, augmented by the findings of an online survey in which some 250 FNV members took part.

The report focuses mainly on the psychosocial risks from the work use of smartphones and tablets in terms of "techno-stress" ("any negative impact on attitudes, thoughts, behaviours, or body physiology that is caused either directly or indirectly by technology"), "techno-addiction" (continuing compulsive use even when the activity is manifestly injurious) and "techno-invasion" (when the boundary between work and private life is eliminated).

The author cites a 2011 survey done among 3,700 employees. One in eight of the participants aged 22 to 34 check their mobile phone more than ten times an hour during their free time ("downtime"), and one in three check their e-mails immediately after waking, even before dressing or breakfast, while 29% of the "mobile workers" who took part (all age categories) admit that using mobile technology has created strains in their personal - especially partner - relationships.

The report also highlights some counterintuitive findings with the work use of new communication technologies. Although meant to increase efficiency and productivity, if allowed to go uncontrolled they can actually disrupt work. This includes breaking off from work to answer incoming e-mails on a mobile or PC, which "leads to a break in concentration and impairs the quality of work."

Where physical health is concerned, the report singles out the risk of finger, wrist, neck and shoulder problems. "Blackberry Thumb" (a nod to the smartphone’s precursor) has become common shorthand. "The ergonomic conditions in which mobile workers work probably also fall short of the requirements of working environment laws," cautions the author.

The author’s recommendations include restricting e-mailing outside of office hours. He points to Volkswagen Germany’s recent decision to ban e-mailing to an employee’s mobile later than 30 minutes after they have finished work.

"It is time for the unions to start negotiating on where 'actual work time’ starts and stops when mobile communications are used. It must not come to the point where employees are expected to be on-call round the clock for no extra pay," said FNV health and safety at work expert Wim Van Veelen.

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