By STEVE WESTON, Chief Customer Officer

Mobile devices are designed to be connected to everything, all the time, but human beings need to switch off occasionally in order to function well. What can employers do to ensure staff get the downtime they need, asks Steve Weston, Hays CIO?

When we live in an always-on world, is it any wonder that some of us have trouble switching off? Information overload is something most office workers contend with in their working lives, but now that most of us carry mobile devices, it’s increasingly an after-hours problem, too.

In fact, some employees deal with work issues from the moment they wake up until the time go to sleep, according to a survey of 1,000 UK adults, conducted last year by mobile technology specialist Good Technology.

Two-thirds of respondents (66 percent) said they check their work emails before 7am. Fifteen percent respond to work email after 10pm. More than one in three (37 percent) reply to work emails in bed in order to stay on top of things, while 29 percent do it at the dinner table.

On the face of it, this sounds like great news for productivity, but it’s got occupational health specialists worried. The line between work and personal life is increasingly becoming blurred, they say, and UK employees aren’t getting the downtime they need. One in six already experience anxiety, depression and stress in the workplace that prevents them from performing at their best, according to mental health

But it’s not all bad news: on the flip side, there’s no question that mobile devices can also alleviate workplace stress. Deployed well, a ‘bring your own device’ (BYOD) policy can increase employee satisfaction and motivation, by giving employees choices: the choice, for example, to work from home occasionally, to arrange working hours around childcare and other commitments, and to decide when and where they get work done, all using the mobile device with which they feel most comfortable.

In fact, BYOD is something that employees now say they actively seek: in a June 2013 survey from technology company VMware, 39 percent of UK employees said they would consider leaving their employer if they couldn’t use their own mobile device for work.

Most employers are understandably reluctant to dictate to employees when they can and can’t use their mobile devices for work-related matters, especially if they’re using their own devices. In 2011, car manufacturer Volkswagen caused a real stir when, in response to the demands of unions in Germany, it stopped forwarding emails to employees’ BlackBerry devices outside of working hours. It’s not an approach that has caught on elsewhere.

What’s needed, perhaps, is a formal acknowledgement by employers, as part of their BYOD policies, that, while there will always be employees who choose to use mobile technologies to work after-hours, it is precisely that – the employee’s choice and not their employer’s expectation.

The message needs to be sent out, loud and clear, that it’s not lazy or irresponsible to switch off from time to time. In fact, it’s essential. Just like the devices on which they rely, employees need a chance to recharge their batteries.

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