In theory, technology is supposed to make workers more efficient and productive. In practice, it may in fact do precisely the opposite. Rather than workers using these new tools to do their jobs more effectively, they are now increasingly beholden to those very tools.
Just because technology has made work easier in certain respects does not mean that its effects have been consistently beneficial. While the marketing and advertising of IT products tends to focus on the working utopia that their purchase will usher in, in reality the use of smartphones, mobile computers and the like can actually add to the workload of many workers by putting them perpetually ‘on the grid’ and habituating them to a new and more demanding lifestyle.
Recent research conducted by The Australia Institute for its national Go Home On Time Day, which will be held on November 30 this year, demonstrates how widespread ‘time pollution’ is.
Polluted time could be described as those periods in which work pressures or commitments prevent someone from enjoying or otherwise making the most of their non-work time. Time can be polluted by needing to do work tasks outside of normal working hours, being on call to come into work if necessary, or simply thinking about work to the extent that it affects the way free time is used or experienced.
Polluted time is one of the many consequences of a labour market which has become increasingly ‘flexible’ over the past few decades. All too often the benefits of such flexibility have flowed to employers, while employees see less flexibility than they would like.
Survey results suggest that in a workforce of 11.4 million people, some 6.8 million workers experience some degree of time pollution in any given week, while 1.75 million workers regularly have their free time polluted by work demands.
Some workers may have made a conscious decision to allow their free time to be interrupted in return for a higher wage (or extra pay for being on call), while some may simply enjoy their jobs so much that they don’t mind spending more time working than they need to. For others, however, working during evenings or on weekends may be less a matter of choice than necessity – perhaps because it is expected by their manager or in their vocation, or because certain tasks can only be carried out by them. Or maybe there is simply too much work to be done.
While employers often insist on limiting personal use of technology at work, they also make explicit or implicit demands on their employees’ free time by providing them with those very same technologies for use outside the workplace. This is a fast track to low morale and high staff turnover.
For their part, workers should beware of bosses bearing gifts. Although hi-tech gadgets are attractive, in a work context they often come with conditions attached.