Digital Addiction in the Workplace: What Employers Need to Know

Copyright 2019

The powerful draw of social media, messaging, Internet browsing and related activities on smartphones is hard for many people to resist. As with forms of chemical dependency (alcoholism, for example) the boundary between excessive digital activity and digital activity that's clinically disabling is complex. It revolves around the extent to which the activity impairs a person's ability to function normally and negatively impacts their daily lives.

Digital addiction hasn't yet made its way into the psychology profession's official compendium of disorders. But academics are actively researching the phenomenon, and clinicians are trying to treat people afflicted with the condition. Without an official clinical definition, it's hard to estimate how prevalent digital addiction is. Unofficial estimates vary widely and range from 8% to 38% of the general population having some degree of digital addiction. 

Opioid Addiction Comparison

For many affected by digital addiction, the result is "the constant dopamine stimulation [and] a preoccupation with, and need to reinforce this electronic high," Robert Glatter, M.D., wrote in Forbes recently. And a study of young adults by a pair of San Francisco State University professors noted that "the behavioral addiction of smartphone use begins forming neurological connections in the brain in ways similar to how opioid addiction is experienced by people taking Oxycontin for pain relief — gradually."

Similarly, digital addiction disorder has been linked to changes in the structure of the part of the brain "associated with remembering details, attention, planning, and prioritizing tasks," according to clinical psychologist Christina Gregory, Ph.D. Most jobs require those capabilities.

What are the consequences for the digitally addicted at your workplace? Excessive digital activity unrelated to work causes productivity to crater. That can be the simple result of employees spending time on their smartphones instead of working, or the upshot of depression and anxiety symptoms associated with the condition. (In some cases, however, digital addition can be the consequence, not the cause, of anxiety and depression.)

Other symptoms, according to Dr. Gregory, include dishonesty, isolation, mood swings, boredom with routine tasks, procrastination and agitation. Physical symptoms can include headaches, backaches, insomnia, weight gain or loss, and poor personal hygiene.

ADA, FMLA Implications

So, what happens when you suspect that an employee is a digital addict? Some legal experts suggest thinking of digital addiction as a bona fide sickness or disability. As with other mental and health conditions that impact their work, employees with digital addiction disorder may be entitled to protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The fact that digital addiction isn't yet officially defined doesn't get you off the compliance hook.

Under the FMLA, affected employees must be granted leave to seek treatment for the condition. And the ADA's "reasonable accommodation" requirement compels you to try to find a way to enable a digital addict to stay on your payroll.

The operative word is "try," however. As with other categories of disability, you may not be able to find a way — without causing "undue hardship" to your business — to adjust a digitally addicted employee's job or working environment to enable the employee to continue to earn his or her keep.

Compliance Procedures

From a compliance perspective, you must follow the necessary procedures applicable to all forms of disability. Those include:

  • Ensure you have an up-to-date employee handbook that describes your policies for accommodating employees with disabilities.
  • Secure employee acknowledgements that they've received your handbook and understand your willingness to work with them on accommodating a disability.
  • Document all discussions with employees about their disabilities and your efforts to accommodate them.
  • Train front-line supervisors on your procedures for handling employee disability issues.

Perhaps you're skeptical about whether digital addiction is a bona fide clinical condition worthy of being treated as a disability. It's certainly possible that an employee could try to use this problem as a justification for poor job performance. Regardless, that stance wouldn't let the employee continue to underperform without demonstrating an effort to address the problem, such as by seeking treatment.

You can also steer employees who spend inordinate time on their devices to look for practical self-help suggestions. For example, Erik Peper and Richard Harvey, the San Francisco State University professors who compared digital addition to opioid addiction, suggested the following steps, among others, in a paper published by NeuroRegulation:

  • Turn off notification settings on apps, so they don't interrupt your work.
  • Notify your social (and if appropriate, work) network of specific and limited times during the day when you'll review and respond to messages.
  • Make a game out of avoiding smartphone use.
  • Create unstructured time without stimulation to allow the opportunity for self-reflection and regeneration.

To the clinically addicted, those steps might prove to be easier said than done. But they're at least a starting point, and could enable employees on the threshold of more serious digital difficulties to nip them in the bud.