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Business Education Employees suffer separation anxiety when deprived of their smartphones

The stress associated with nomophobia can be eased if employees are given rough ideas on when they'll get their devices back, HEC Montréal researchers say.

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In our hyper-connected age, smartphones are a must-have tool for workers in almost any business environment.

The problem is, we’ve become so attached to these handy little devices that many of us feel stressed and anxious when they are taken away – even for a short period of time.

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It’s even got a name: nomophobia, referring to the fear of not being able to use one's phone and the subsequent loss of access to information, connectedness and instant communication. Negative effects of nomophobia aren’t to be trivialized. On the personal side, some experts suggest it be considered a mental disorder. But businesses, too, can suffer.

“The stress arising from nomophobia can reduce job performance, and create health problems at the same time, such as chronic stress,” researchers Stefan Tams, Renaud Legoux and Pierre-Majorique Léger of HEC Montréal say in an e-mail.

The research trio recently completed a study examining nomophobia and the conditions under which stress-related effects manifest themselves in a business context. Their work is published in the academic journal Computers of Human Behaviour.

The inspiration for the project came out of the team’s own personal experience with a popular new corporate policy that requires workers to leave their smartphones outside meeting rooms. It’s a well-intended policy designed to create more productive and respectful work environments.

Yet, such policies also induce stress among those separated from their devices, and that, in turn, can lead to unintended negative consequences for individuals and their organizations alike.

The team built their work on earlier studies by Dr. Tams, an associate professor in the department of information technologies, into technostress, or stress induced by technology. Technostress is a critical problem of increasing importance because it generates massive losses for organizations due to lost worker productivity.

The recent study takes a different viewpoint, examining how stress can result when people are deprived of technology.

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Among its findings, the study suggests that nomophobia leads to stress when smartphone users feel decreased levels of control and uncertainty in a particular situation. In such situations, nomophobics worry about losing control or looking foolish – a reaction linked to feeling socially threatened.

Only when people were given some level of control, including information on the length of time they would be away their phones, was stress associated with nomophobia eased.

The study did not examine how long it takes to develop stress related to smartphone withdrawal. But, they say, for highly phone-dependent individuals, “a few minutes may suffice.”

There are ways managers can help their employees cope with nomophobia. The research team suggests letting employees know how long they’ll be without access to their phones or allowing employees to temporarily exit a meeting to use their phones.

“Managers can help their nomophobic employees by instilling in them trust, while also giving them more control over their smartphone use during meetings,” they say.

The study drew from data collected from 270 smartphone users. The researchers say it is intended to advance understanding of nomophobia by offering more detailed explanations of the mechanisms involved in triggering stress.

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Story ideas related to business school research in Canada can be sent to darahkristine@gmail.com.

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