Cincy Science: Staying connected to the office isn't necessarily a good thing

UC study examines the impact on mind and body

CINCINNATI - There’s no doubt technology keeps us connected, but what does it do to our lives, careers and families? The psychological effects of constantly being on the job virtually is being examined by University of Cincinnati researchers, who have initially called the constant presence of technology a "frenemy," with both positive and negative effects.

There’s this tension because technology is great and it allows us to integrate and be more flexible, but at the same time that can be a bad thing long-term because of the potential health and psychological effects of always being on," said University of Cincinnati associate professor of psychology and study researcher Stacey Furst-Holloway. "So that’s the question that’s really driving the study.”

The study, funded by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), will attempt to identify healthy practices and policies for technology in the virtual workplace.

One focus is on "technology related pressure" that compels people to continue working long after they’ve left the office. Furst-Holloway said initial findings show that most people who blend work and home through technology see staying connected as positive because they never fall behind with emails and updates. She said many also see it as a way to score points with supervisors by proving their dedication to the job. Unfortunately, she said, becoming the star employee often comes at the expense of others.

“So we think it’s going to end up being a bad thing because we’re also getting feedback from significant others and spouses and friends, that the more they’re connected to work off hours, the perception from the people that they care about at home is going to be that they’re disconnected from the home role,” she said.

Researchers will measure the pros and cons of working virtually from home. Furst-Holloway explained on the plus side that people save money and time commuting to work. On the negative side, she said people lose out on valuable communication and interaction. She said working virtually gives people the excuse not to communicate face to face and instead send a text or an email. She said establishing trust and building relationships often takes longer virtually as opposed to face to face.

“But you contrast that to the upside that allows more people to be included in the conversation,” she said “You don’t have to have 50 conversations when you can cc 50 people on an email and say, 'Hey, this is what’s going on.' So virtually for every plus, there’s a drawback.”

Even though workers may be rewarded for continuous availability, Furst-Holloway said early indications show those most content to integrate work and  home have set rules on when to disconnect. She said in our contemporary world, the idea of striking a balance between work and family is no longer possible.

“We think there’s potentially no such thing,” she said. “Now the vernacular is work-life integration and how do you blend the two because it’s virtually impossible these days to keep them separated. So it’s more just a matter of the degree in which you integrate those things. “

As a learning facilitator for Humana, Denise Shirley agrees it’s easy to get caught up in the virtual workplace especially when working primarily from home. When she first started in the virtual workforce, she tried to juggle both school and a full-time job. To the dismay of her family, she often found herself working past dinner and late into the evening.

“I was on the computer all the time and my son was letting me have it – he’s seven now,” she said. “Finally I realized I wasn’t giving them what they need or deserve as a family. So now I just keep the computer away and don’t bring it with so I have that time with them.”

Conversely, Shirley explained when she first started working from home she had to constantly remind her family she was actually at work. She said it takes time for families to realize even though you’re at home, you’re not available.

“So making sure everyone understands you really are at work can be a bit of a challenge,” she said.

When Shirley trains new hires, she emphasizes the need to shut down. She said it’s important to take breaks for both physical and mental health, especially when working from home.

“You tend to work more when you work from home, so you have to really discipline yourself to take a break,” she said. “Leave that computer alone during the weekend and don’t go into the office after five – that is a challenge because you think, 'Oh I can get one more thing done or I can send an email,' but you have to take care of you and take care of your family.”

Furst-Holloway expects to publish results of the study sometime in late September or early October. She's now   mainly examining psychological data and says the next phase will assess the physical impact from not being able to disconnect.

“We’re measuring emotional exhaustion, those sorts of things, but those are psychological variables and not physiological ones," she said. "But I think the physiological ones will be really, really important to study as a next step.”

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