Line between work, life blurs in digital age

Green. Green. Green. Red! Red! Red!

If you remember the days of the Blackberry smartphone, you remember its blinking green and red light. Green meant “All is under control. No emails to respond to. Go back to sleep.” Red meant “Alert! Someone needs you! Check your phone!” Thus began our training to constantly monitor our inboxes and to feel the need to respond to work emails immediately. And, for some of us, the pattern became so dysfunctional that there was anxiety when the green light kept blinking. Why am I getting no emails? Am I not valuable? Have I been fired?

Fortunately, iPhones and Android-powered devices have more customizable settings so we can avoid being tormented by those lights. However, the anxiety we experience having to be constantly on guard for work-related messages is still staggering. It’s hard to pinpoint when this began, but anecdotal evidence suggests the rise of the iPhone about a decade ago, along with the financial crisis at the same time, forced workers to prove their worth by being constantly connected. This confluence of events likely accelerated the development of a mindset that workers are expected to be consistently reachable, even at home or on vacation.

Sometimes the sun needs to set on our work so that we can recharge.

What is this culture of connectivity doing to us emotionally and psychologically? Are we transforming into automatons whose job it is to manage the flow of email and text messages, regardless of the hour of day? I fear that this blurring of lines between work and personal lives is all to our detriment. We are becoming more human doings than human beings. We and our children are suffering for it. How many times have we justified ignoring our children while we’re on our phones because “this is for work”? The signal it sends: Our work is more important to us than they are. Although we don’t believe that in our hearts, it’s how we often behave. It’s time we start to have a serious conversation about how we have permitted the technology of work – in the form of emails, texts, etc. – to infiltrate our personal lives.

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Indeed, there is a dignity associated with work. Work is not bad. A well-ordered work life is redeeming, life-giving and puts food on the table. However, we are beginning to lose touch with the notion that a job has its proper place in our lives. Sometimes the sun needs to set on our work so that we can recharge in the quiet peace of ourselves and our families. If we permit ourselves to be tethered to the demands of work, we can never truly disconnect from it and reconnect with our loved ones, nature, or simply sit with a book in our hands.

I worry for our children. Jean Twenge, a leading researcher on mental health, argues that smartphones and social media have contributed to the alarming mental health crisis we are seeing in our children and young adults. In an age when kids are safer and more secure than ever, it is hard for us to understand the rapid rise in anxiety, depression and suicide rates in our youths. Twenge believes smartphones, social media and constant connectivity are playing a larger role in this troubling phenomenon than we are willing to admit.

This is why we need to think critically and carefully before heavily relying on technology that blurs the lines between home and school. For example, many school districts provide laptops for children and encourage them to do a lot of their learning online. Although it is important that schools and children stay on track and on schedule throughout the school year, we need to consider the message we are sending. Are we training our children that there is no such thing as downtime, and that they need to be productive at all times and in all places? Given that many of us believe this blurred line between our work and personal lives often makes us anxious, we should be wary of heavily burdening our children with a culture of connectivity and productivity. Kids need to be kids. n

Brian J. Lamoureux is a partner at Pannone Lopes Devereaux & O’Gara LLC and a practitioner faculty member in the Providence College School of Business.

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