Internet addiction in the workplace

If the prevention of depression is better than trying to treat it, how should a safety manager proceed when permissible work practices may be contributing to mental health problems in some workers?

A new UK study announced today says “that excessive internet use is associated with depression”.  The researchers say that

“…some users have developed a compulsive internet habit, whereby they replace real-life social interaction with online chat rooms and social networking sites.  The results suggest that this type of addictive surfing can have a serious impact on mental health.”

Lead author Dr Catriona Morrison, from the University of Leeds, says in a media release (not yet available online):

“….what we don’t know is which comes first – are depressed people drawn to the internet or does the internet cause depression?  What is clear, is that for a small subset of people, excessive use of the internet could be a warning signal for depressive tendencies.”

The general population figure of the internet addicts from the research is just over 1%.

The reports conclusion in the online abstract says:

“The concept of IA [internet addiction] is emerging as a construct that must be taken seriously.  Moreover, it is linked to depression, such that those who regard themselves as dependent on the Internet report high levels of depressive symptoms.  Those who show symptoms of IA are likely to engage proportionately more than the normal population in sites that serve as a replacement for real-life socialising.”

Debate about accessing social networking in the workplace

There has been debate in HR and business circles about whether access to social networking sites should be allowed in workplaces.  Some employers see these sites as important ways to keep in touch with colleagues and friends.  Other see them as an unacceptable threat to corporate privacy and a time-waster on a par with, but slightly less hazardous to, smoking.

The challenge for many OHS professionals is that an issue that could previously have been left to HR or the IT unit, now has potential health impacts.  What was once a tool for good has now become evil.  You can bet this research report will get a good run in some sections of the media.  Perhaps they will target the concerns of the parents of the Twitter-generation.  They may take the workplace productivity angle.  However the issue is presented, the report will be discussed.

What can the OHS professional do?

Firstly, you let people know that you are aware of the basics of the research findings and will seek further information when the report is published in the journal Psychopathology on 10 February 2010.  You want to see the evidence behind the discussion.

Secondly, follow through and get the article.

Thirdly, talk over the issue in your next OHS or management meeting.  Determine if there is likely to be any internet addicts in the workplace.

Then, decide whether any risk control applied through broad action across the workplace is really worth the hassle.  Unless you work in a large organisation with computer-based tasks, it is likely to be an issue that is best resolved individually by the supervisor talking the matter over with the internet addict.

It may be useful to flag the issues raised by the research in a corporate OHS newsletter.  It is probable that the issue of mental health needs in the workplace is already being discussed, perhaps through a wellness or Employment Assistance Program.  Acknowledgement of the research could be presented in the broader issue of depression or stress management.

What is suggested is that if there is an internet addict in your workplace, banning Facebook, Twitter or some other site, is not going to “break the habit”, not when social networking can be done more easily on mobile phones, hand-held computers and, when they are available, the iPad.

Having only seen the embargoed media release and abstract ourselves, we can’t add anything from the research report itself.  It is important, when the opportunity arises, to be prepared.  It may be an issue that fizzes, it may not.

But what research reports of this type indicate is that the OHS professional needs to access a range of different information sources and “keep an ear to the ground”.  Anticipation of an issue will substantially reduce any negative impacts on a workplace if handled correctly.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

3 thoughts on “Internet addiction in the workplace”

  1. Eane

    Most safety professionals in Australia are way behind the rest of the world in their understanding of managing psychosocial risks at work. The tertiary instruction I received was in a School of Engineering and focussed on manufacturing hazards which, even at that time, was an industry in decline.

    I believe the ergonomists are way in front on psychosocial risks because, even though their discipline originated from a mechanistic perspective of the worker, they deal with people and not machines. The work they have undertaken on cognitive applications and safe design has been very significant.

    I also think that the safety professionals are very uncommunicative, some would say combative, towards the human resources profession. Yet HR has had to deal with a large share of the psychosocial hazards in the workplace. I believe that in many circumstances the HR approach has been on the treatment of psychosocial hazards rather than cure. This has to do with the nature of HR training but also that elimination of workplace risks takes a great deal of time and the profession, nor the overall management structures, have been prepared to approach psychosocial issues with this aim.

    A fundamental reason is that if elimination of hazard is seriously sought, the possible solutions threaten the way that many businesses operate. There are few people, or professionals, who seek to threaten their own livelihood.

    However, experience from the global financial crisis and the modern environmental challenges present us with the need to manage business differently. I am keeping an eye out for a saviour.

    Thanks very much for commenting


  2. Kevin,

    Spot on. Given the rapid increase in the use and dependence on internet-based work processes this is an extremely relevant (and largely ignored) area of risk. We have thus far largely assessed such functions from a physical risk sense while remaining ignorant of the psycho-social factors.

    However this also raises another issue in that the training and education of safety professionals – myself included – primarily focuses on the physical, chemical, biological… the hidden psychosocial risk is an area that requires greater focus from us as a profession. Apart from providing employee assistance services we do not do much at all, preferring to risk-transfer an issue we know little about rather than attempting to address it preventatively.

    In addition – like many other occupational health and safety matters – there is the issue regarding work-related, non-work-related and the artificial barrier between the two…


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