Technology blurring line between home and work life for many Canadians

In the age of hyperconnectivity, it’s hard to separate personal life from work life. Is mobility turning us into workaholics?
The morning of our interview, Laurent DuBerger, then communications specialist at GSOFT, a Montreal designer of digital business tools, was scheduled for an important team meeting. Unfortunately, his two-year-old son woke up that morning with a fever. In the doctor’s waiting room, DuBerger tried to overcome his guilt as he replied to messages from colleagues. And yet, at GSOFT, young parents like DuBerger are fully supported by the employer and encouraged to put family first. “I try to focus exclusively on my family at home, and on work at work,” says the affable 36-year-old dad. “But the line can blur, and I feel guilty when I occasionally respond to emails or texts in the evening.”

DuBerger is hardly alone in trying to walk the tightrope of hyperconnected life. Although they believe that communication technology has improved their lives, Canadian workers complain about how it blurs the boundary between private life and work. A recent Statistics Canada survey shows that the percentage of Canadian workers claiming to be satisfied or very satisfied with their work-life balance fell from 78 per cent in 2008 to 68 per cent in 2016.

54% of workers reported working an average of seven hours a week from home on top of their regular workload

That doesn’t surprise Linda Duxbury, professor at the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University in Ottawa, who has been studying work-family balance for more than 25 years. Already in a study published in 2012 with Christopher Higgins of Western University, she noted that 54 per cent of workers reported working an average of seven hours a week from home on top of their regular workload. And she says the problem is not getting better. The average worker processes about a hundred emails daily, almost a quarter of them from home, according to a 2016 study she conducted on 1,500 Canadian professionals.

Duxbury blames an “instant-response culture” for the growing dissatisfaction with work-life balance among professionals. “The problem is that technology allows people to work 24/7. But if you spend part of your evening juggling emails, your mind is not on your family. And that increases stress and tension.”

Mobile addicts

Screen time has tripled over the past 10 years, says Amnon Jacob Suissa, associate professor of sociology at UQAM’s School of Social Work and author of Sommes-nous trop branchés? La cyberdépendance (PUQ, 2017), a study on hyperconnectedness and cyber dependence. Without descending into technophobia, this addiction specialist says the issue is not technology per se, but how we use it. “A core value in some workplaces is performance at any price—efficiency means responding at all times. You really have to be disciplined Don’t let an over-reliance on tech devices and their applications turn into an addiction, and keep up high-quality relationships with family and friends.”

Due to compulsive phone checking, some people develop a dependency he likens to a drug or gambling habit. It’s a condition called nomophobia (derived from “no-mobile-phone-phobia”), continues the sociologist, which is anxiety caused by being without your mobile phone or some other type of device. “Just think, not that long ago, you had to go home to retrieve your messages! Always being available, having access to information wherever we are—we’ve seen a real revolution in the last 10 to 15 years.”

In the field, organizational psychologist Julie Carignan, CHRA, partner at SPB, regularly meets managers and employees who are addicted to their mobile appendages. She points to the popularity of texting in work communications, sneaky and subtle intrusions into the private sphere that can only be escaped by turning off one’s device. “Even if you’re on vacation, as soon as a message pops up on your phone, your brain reconnects with work and stress can set in, especially in certain work environments where you’re expected to respond to texts or emails at all times, even if that’s not explicitly stated,” says Carignan.

Ultimately, unlimited availability leaves some workers feeling anxious if they disconnect. “People often tell me that being offline stresses them more than keeping the phone on,” she adds. “They’re afraid of missing out on something important, losing a client or being flooded with messages the next morning if they don’t deal right away with the ones that come in. Slowly but surely, some of them become addicted and end up spending less quality time with their entourage. We often underestimate the effect of connectivity, especially on our loved ones.”

Children pay an especially high price for their parents’ screen addiction, says American clinical psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age (Harper, 2013). The thousand or so children aged 4 to 18 she interviewed for her book said it was really upsetting when their parents ignored them to spend time working behind a screen, she explained in a phone interview. Many particularly hate it when their parents say, “just this one,” only to end up being absorbed in their phone.

“Technology addiction paints a troubling picture of family life today: everyone on their own device instead of interacting with each other. And it’s not so much the children or teenagers—who are generally criticized for spending so much time online—as the parents themselves. They are the ones who become workaholics and neglect their families, underestimating the long-term effect on their children’s health.”

Digital harassment?

Implicit or explicit expectations of permanent availability are very common in managers and professionals, especially in law and finance, says Diane-Gabrielle Tremblay, professor and work-life balance specialist at TÉLUQ’s School of Business Administration. “In environments where the client is king, the workday starts early in the morning and ends late at night. The phone is always on and you’re supposed to answer calls, emails or texts, whether to drive up sales or because it looks good if you want to make partner.”

CPAs are certainly not immune to hyperconnectivity. In a survey done for CPA Québec in spring 2017, Tremblay found that almost half (46 per cent) of professional accountants use their mobile devices for work purposes outside of regular hours. What’s more, 38 per cent check their inbox right up until they go to bed and 40 per cent feel they have to respond before they show up for work the next day.

Almost half—46%—of professional accountants use their mobile devices for work purposes outside of regular hours

But it’s not all gloom and doom. Hyperconnectivity provides some comfort and flexibility, say most of the experts interviewed, by allowing professionals to knock a few tasks off the next day’s to-do list outside of working hours. According to Yves Lasfargue, director of OBERGO, a French research institute specializing in telework, working conditions and IT-related stress, there is even something nice about being permanently connected. “The issue is the volume of written communications workers are flooded with today,” adds Lasfargue, who bluntly qualifies this as digital harassment. “With technology, we’ve become an impatient society: we want an immediate response to things that don’t deserve one. Drowning in communications, we have difficulty separating what is important from what isn’t. The trouble is, you have to respond quickly or the messages pile up. That’s digital harassment.”

How did we get here? It all started, Lasfargue says, when the first mobile phones came on the scene in the mid-1990s. “Mobility shattered all the traditional codes between place and work. With a traditional phone, there was a certain etiquette and no one called you at 9 p.m. That kind of courtesy has flown out the window.” At the same time, response times have eroded. “In people’s minds, once transmission times pretty much disappeared, so should be processing time,” he explains.

Tremblay has noticed a growing awareness of the need for special moments. “Of course, the more the workplace is hierarchical or the more the boss is controlling, the harder it is. The immediate superior is one of the most important variables in work-life balance.”

The right to disconnect

In 2016, France became the first country to legislate the “right to disconnect,” a labour law provision requiring management and labour in companies with more than 50 employees to negotiate a policy on the use of digital tools to protect time off and stop work from encroaching on personal and family life. Basically, it means that outside of working hours you have the right not to answer texts from the boss. The provision came into force in January 2017.

The actual effects are not known yet, says Lasfargue, mainly because companies are tight-lipped about the agreements negotiated with employees. Nonetheless, the law at least has the merit of forcing organizations to consider this issue, he says. “Before 2016, no one ever talked about the ‘right to disconnect’ in companies. The law has legitimized this right.”

Canada too has every incentive to align its legislation with work in the digital age, says Pierre Trudel, professor of public law at the Faculty of Law at Université de Montréal. “We have to think up ways to protect downtime when workers shouldn’t be obliged to respond,’ says Trudel. “In Quebec, for instance, you hear a lot about digital policy, but never anything about the need to protect time off. It’s not a question of imposing rules, but of starting a dialogue with all parties in the workplace.”

All the experts interviewed agreed that organizations also have a role to play in preventing digital harassment. “First, they have to realize how much the issue costs them because hyperconnectivity affects employees’ mental health and productivity,” says Duxbury. “Organizations can also teach managers not to encroach on their employees’ personal lives, adopt a clear and official connectivity policy, or raise employee awareness,” adds Carignan.

“Ultimately, it is up to each and every one of us to draw the line between private life and work and avoid digital invasion,” insists Duxbury. “Let’s be frank: it’s not technology that blurs the line between work and personal life, it’s you. You control technology, it doesn’t control you. You have to learn to disconnect.”

But how? By developing basic “hygiene rules,” says Suissa, like putting devices aside during meals or restricting access in the bedroom. Steiner-Adair goes further. “Without realizing it, parents sacrifice so many special moments to the distraction of a screen. In the car, at bath time, at the kitchen table, put away your phone and talk to your children.”

That’s what DuBerger is trying to do. “Luckily, I have an understanding girlfriend. So, I do manage to achieve work-life balance. I look at it a bit like a puzzle: if one piece is cut wrong, something will have to give. You have to find the right piece.”