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Learning to cope in an `always available' world

Mobile technology means that most of us are no longer `out of the office': We can be contacted anyplace, anytime. But without careful management, say psychologists, we're on a slippery slope to burnout

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Chinese talk on their mobile phones at a promotional event held at a China Mobile office in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, on March 17.

PHOTO: AP

The benefits and drawbacks of mobile technology have never been in any real doubt. You can be contacted at any time, you can receive texts or e-mails on a train, there are coaches on which you can receive a good Wi-Fi signal so that time isn't dead either, and most hotels have a business center or broadband in the rooms so your colleagues can get hold of you in an emergency on holiday. Frankly, once you start to regard yourself and your colleagues as individuals rather than simple economic units for the production of money, you begin to realize just how invasive technology can be. For Londoners, this month's announcement that London Underground train network is looking into how to make cellphones work on their trains starts to look like a mixed blessing.

The sheer amount of communication is now damaging the quality of the work being done. In a survey carried out by PalmOne in late 2004, more than 50 percent of respondents said that business decisions were being delayed by unanswered e-mails and that sloppy, mistake-ridden messages were damaging business relationships.

Orange [the mobile company], meanwhile, launched its Organizational Lives report this month. This freely acknowledges the drawbacks of mobile technology, the executive summary points to a blurring between work and home (after all, once you've logged on to the intranet you might as well be in the office) and says: "Mobile data will liberate those who find ways to use it selectively, while burdening those who fail to adapt their routine." The report devotes an entire section to the art of knowing when to switch off.

Occupational psychologists are as concerned about the human cost over and above what's good or bad for business. Cary Cooper is an occupational psychologist at Lancaster University Management School, UK, and has strong feelings about constant availability (he was speaking while on holiday in the Algarve).

"We all feel now that we have to be connected. We could switch off our [cell] phones and e-mail, but we don't do it," he said.

There are a number of reasons for this, he suggests. Job insecurity is one.

"We are more job insecure than ever before. There are no jobs for life any more, so people feel they need to show commitment, show that they're available all the time and prepared to do work," he said.

This has coincided with the availability of virtual work and flexible arrangements, he says.

"Psychologically we're more virtual [in the workplace] than ever before. We feel we want to know what's going on, we don't want to be left out," he added.

So we check our e-mails more frequently than is strictly necessary and make sure everyone knows that we're doing it and we're available.

The consequences aren't universally positive. Diane Aitchison is a psychologist with the Criterion Partnership. She points to people with a strong sense of control who like to be seen to be available, but who end up setting a precedent by appearing to be around the whole time. They end up as the dependable one who is always called upon for extra work, and the appearance of coping can mask a highly stressed individual.

"People can be making a rod for their own back," she says. "It can reinforce some people who have work addictions and makes them feel indispensable, which on one hand is good because you feel valued so you cope in the short term, but in the longer term it can be too much."

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