Experts in top team and board consulting, training and development
Posted by Andrew on 30th January 2014
‘Compulsive Internet Use’ puts hardest workers at risk of burnout

Our most recent research into the impacts of technology on people’s lives has revealed that the most successful and hard-working employees are often at a greater risk of isolation, depression and anxiety because of Compulsive Internet Use (CIU).

CIU is defined by a person’s over reliance on the Internet as a means to balance both their work and personal lives. Workaholics are finding themselves increasingly drawn to the Internet outside of work, and are more likely to suffer detrimental effects and withdrawal symptoms when they finally switch off.

A growing body of evidence suggests some individuals are losing control of their online browsing habits, with an alarming pattern of behaviour exemplified by a preoccupation with technology, conflict, withdrawal symptoms, and an over-reliance on the Web to cope with a range of lifestyle problems.

Organisations encourage and feed these addictions by creating a culture where workers are expected to always be connected and available on demand. This has very real and damaging long-term effects, causing burn-out and exhaustion. Our society is such that being regarded as an ‘overachiever’ is seen as a positive and respectable thing.

Our study of over 500 employed and unemployed men and women aged between 18 and 65 included questionnaires which surveyed their use of the Internet, emotional stability, work patterns, and work-life balance. Over 60 per cent reported feelings associated with CIU, and many felt distressed and anxious when offline.

We discovered that often it is the most successful employees who are at risk of isolation and depression as they increasingly use the Internet to continue working outside of the office. These workaholics are becoming inseparable from the Web and, even more worrying, is the significant number of companies overlooking these dangers because these same workers often generate the most productive results.

We further found a significant number of participants were in denial. When quizzed they often justified their circumstances as an unavoidable part of the job. Some people reported getting up throughout the night to check work emails. Research in this area has repeatedly flagged that such multi-tasking is inefficient because it takes much longer to learn anything or complete tasks without a singular focus.

Although unemployed individuals spend more time online, they do not show the same addictive tendencies as those in work. The economic crisis has created an unstable employment market and the very fear of being out of work and the difficulty of getting a new job puts individuals’ mental health at risk. High flyers treat feelings of depression and anxiety by turning to the Internet to find new opportunities should the worse ever happen.

Compulsive behaviour is exemplified when Internet use becomes seriously unhealthy. Users spend an excessive amount of time online, sometimes flirting, their eating patterns become irregular, relationships suffer, and they become totally absorbed and feel panicked when separated from their computer or mobile device.

Leading up to burnout people start making mistakes simply because they are so exhausted. It may take just one small additional activity to make things feel too much to handle. They are likely to be stretched to a limit where even the simplest task seems insurmountable. They get clumsier as their judgement becomes impaired and for overachievers this is often much worse and they are more likely to burnout more quickly.

We believe companies should issue guidelines on safe Internet use, both at and away from work. They have a duty of care to develop cultures that encourage the best results, but which also educate people about the dangers of a harmful addiction with very real mental and physical side-effects of CIU.

Despite the utopian promise that technology would make our lives easier, longer working-hours and higher expectations are the reality most of us face daily. There is an increasing expectation that employees should always be online and ready to work. The results are an inevitable erosion of family life, relationships and leisure time, all of which ultimately increases levels of occupational stress.

Leaders have the power to choose whether an enhanced balance between work and home will result in a more competitive, energised and innovative workforce. Our advice to those who feel trapped in such a rut is to prioritise the important over the non-important. If you can’t manage the selection process yourself then ask for help from a friend, manager or coach.

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