Is web addiction making your hardest-working staff ill?

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We, that is myself and Dr Cristina Quiñones-García at Open University, define CIU as a person’s over reliance on the Internet as a means to balance both their work and personal life. As researchers we’ve been challenged with identifying a list of early-warning indicators which show who is most vulnerable to developing this very real 21st century condition.

Workaholics are finding themselves increasingly drawn to the Internet outside of work, and are more likely to suffer detrimental effects and withdrawal symptoms when they finally switch off.

A growing body of evidence suggests some individuals are losing control of their online browsing habits, with an alarming pattern of behaviour exemplified by a preoccupation with technology, conflict, withdrawal symptoms, and an over-reliance on the Web to cope with a range of lifestyle problems.

Our most recent study of over 500 employed and unemployed men and women, aged between 18 and 65, included questionnaires which surveyed participants’ use of the Internet, their emotional stability, work patterns, and work-life balance. Over 60% reported feelings associated with CIU, and many felt distressed and anxious when offline.

Although unemployed individuals spend more time online, they do not show the same addictive tendencies as those in work. The economic crisis has created an unstable employment market and the very fear of being out of work and the difficulty of getting a new job puts individuals’ mental health at risk. High flyers treat feelings of depression and anxiety by turning to the Internet to find new opportunities should the worse ever happen.

Compulsive behaviour occurs when Internet use becomes seriously unhealthy. Users spend an excessive amount of time online, sometimes flirting and often waking up several times a night to check emails. Their eating patterns become irregular, relationships suffer, and they become totally absorbed and feel anxious when separated from their computer or mobile device.

For overachievers it is even worse, and they are more likely to make mistakes and burn out quickly. Our research had expected to find higher levels of CIU among the young and unemployed, who might be expected to have more time on their hands. However, our results show that it is predominantly overachievers who are most at risk, and working excessively is the strongest indicator of CIU.

The Internet supports almost all areas of human interaction, but this phenomenon is having a double-edged impact upon many lives. Individuals using technology to work beyond regular office hours are at high risk of developing CIU, but are often overlooked by employers because of their apparent success. Experiencing unemployment and difficulty to access the job market puts individuals’ mental health at risk including depression and anxiety. We demonstrated that this can also result in the development of maladaptive Internet use patterns, which could even worsen their mental health. Our study shows that unemployment is a potential risk factor. Importantly, working excessively can be both a source of life satisfaction and the strongest predictor of CIU.

I believe companies should issue guidelines on safe Internet use, both at and away from work. They have a duty of care to develop cultures that encourage the best results, but which also educate people about the dangers of a harmful addiction with very real mental and physical side effects of CIU.

Despite the utopian promise that technology would make our lives easier, longer working hours and higher expectations are the reality most of us face daily. There is an increasing expectation that employees should always be online and ready to work. The results are an inevitable erosion of family life, relationships and leisure time, all of which ultimately increases levels of occupational stress.

Leaders have the power to choose whether an enhanced balance between work and home will result in a more competitive, energised and innovative workforce. Based on our findings and ongoing research, I sincerely hope they start making the right decisions, before technology is the ruin of us all.



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