Theory to Practice

How does excessive use of mobile technology affect well-being and productivity?

The context

Mobile technology comes with indisputable advantages, but there are criticalities too. In the past few years, people have been using their smartphones for work nearly twice as much as before, a trend that proliferated even further when the pandemic struck. In fact, Covid-19 revolutionized our very conception of work in terms of its space-time boundaries, as well as our needs and priorities. 

Delving into detail, some estimates show that 76% of US workers handle work-related emails after hours, during nonwork time, and many people say that this translates into at least two hours a day on their mobile devices. 

What are the effects of people using mobile technology to work during their free time? Most of the studies that have explored this question find that excessive use is harmful, and point to how the work domain is invading the private sphere.  

By “excessive use,” we mean spending sizeable chunks of time with technology, to the point of losing track  - and control - of time. This would only serve to exacerbate the feeling that work responsibilities are encroaching on private life. But why do individuals have this compulsion to work on their smartphones? 

On one hand, as recent studies show, underlying the tension between work life and private life is the lack of clear boundaries between the home and the workplace, also due to the diffusion of remote work practices. On the other, mobile devices are increasingly ubiquitous, a fact which has totally transformed the way we work.  

In fact, nowadays people try to compensate for moments when personal issues interfere with work life by using their mobile devices more often to do their jobs, even during nonwork time. 

Our research focuses both on the consequences and the determinants of excessive use of mobile devices for work outside of office hours. Our primary aim is to look at how this dynamic develops, and then to study its repercussions, probing into the organizational climate and what impact it may have as well.  

The research

In our study, we hypothesize that work-family conflict is associated with excessive use of cell phones for work-related reasons during nonwork time. We also posit that the more competitive the organization climate, the stronger the relationship between these two dynamics is. 

What’s more, we expect excessive smartphone use to have ripple effects that reverberate onto many different aspects of people’s personal lives and working lives, such as individual productivity, somatic symptoms, psychological well-being, and the quality of relationships within the family circle. 

With regard to our methodology, we ran our field study in the US at two separate intervals, two weeks apart. We recruited an online panel and interviewed these participants and their respective partners, with the evaluations of this latter group being a key element in our investigation. 

To study the underlying dynamic in the work-family conflict, we turned to an approach inspired by the Resource Drain Theory. The basic premise here is that individuals have a finite reservoir of resources, such as energy and time, that they can dedicate to their family or their work. So the more resources they channel into one area, the fewer they have left to spend on the other. 

Generally speaking, our findings support our hypotheses. In fact, our study demonstrates that there is a relationship between work-family conflict and the use of mobile devices for work-related reasons during nonwork hours. 

With respect to prior scientific literature, our findings also reveal that there is no way to accurately analyze this dynamic without considering the context in question. Specifically, the Resource Drain Theory shows that this is a cross-sector phenomenon. 

Future research should explore how feelings of frustration can arise when people continually have to juggle the demands of work and family. We also need to understand whether the negative effects of mobile technology that emerge in one sphere can spill over into the other, creating long-term repercussions.  

Conclusions and takeaways

Proper use of mobile technology and work-life balance are increasingly strategic factors that are necessary to safeguard well-being and guarantee organizational performance. 

With regard to excessive smartphone use for working after hours, the imperative here is to reconcile the tension between the benefits (i.e., greater productivity) and costs (individual well-being), for organizations and individuals who are concerned about more conscious mobile technology use. 

From a management standpoint, our hope is that this study will encourage organizations to introduce training programs to raise awareness around the potentialities and the risks of mobile technology. Our findings also suggest that promoting work environments infused with a cooperative climate is essential to facilitating the balance between work and family.  

To sum up, we believe our research can provide organizations with useful tools to better understand the today’s issues in planning work, to maximize the advantages of mobile technology, and ultimately to create more sustainable environments.