Bringing some balance to the way we use technology

Staff from Balance Network

To what extent is new technology a help or a hindrance in our lives? A project in the Global Sustainability Institute (GSI) is looking at how we can stay in the driving seat of technology and keep a sense of balance.

'I’m at home in the evening and I’ve go on Facebook but I can see work emails have come in. It requires all my self-control not to open them, as I know it’ll stress me if I do…'

These are the words of a young man who took part in a study called Digital Brain Switch. The project is just one of dozens of pieces of research investigating one some of the conundrums of modern life: does technology benefit or damage our work-life balance? And what can we do to make technology work for us, and not against us?

The exciting thing is that much of the research on this subject in the UK, and beyond, has now come together for the first time at ARU, to be streamlined under the umbrella of the Balance Network. The project is running for four years and is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). It has involved activities of no fewer than 18 UK universities and its members include dozens of businesses in the HR, training, government, telecoms and travel sectors who have an interest in the world of work and wellbeing, from Shine Offline to the Department for Work and Pensions, and Save the Children to Talent Keepers, as well as life coaches. This month the Network celebrated recruiting its 250th member. The Network is coordinated by Dr Rosie Robison at our university’s Global Sustainability Institute in collaboration with Dr David Kirk of Newcastle University.

Returning to the young man in the study, he might be identified as a 'captive' as he prefers to avoid work in his non-work time, but finds this separation difficult to achieve.

These categories, developed by Professor Ellen Kossek in the US, were used in research conducted by Rosie, with academics from UCL, Aberdeen and Bristol universities as part of the Digital Epiphanies project. Working in non-work time can lead to 'lower work and life satisfaction, and increased stress' for some. Digital Epiphanies showed how some people deliberately use different devices for work and home to better separate the two. However research into ‘boundary theory’ suggests there is a range in how happy or unhappy we are for work to intrude on non-work time. 'Your attitude can be influenced by your age - whether you are a digital native or a digital immigrant like me,' says Stephanie Cziczo, Communications Manager for the Balance Network.

One thing is clear: we once hoped that technology would give us more time for leisure, with robots and other technologies taking on the boring jobs. But sadly this dream has not really come true.

'Most of us have experienced both negatives and positives sides from our technology use,' says Rosie. 'On the one hand it allows people to have control over when and where they work, and to work around commitments that might have prevented them from having a job in the past. Carers, older workers, the disabled, and new parents all fall into this category.'

Stephanie adds: 'It also enables people to volunteer in things like citizen science projects (where people contribute by spotting stars or birds) – and think of the money hotels are making from digital detox holidays!' 

For these people, technology is far from being a distraction. On the other hand, arguments about too much technology being bad for our well-being are well rehearsed. Members of the Network events have looked at how many of us ‘don’t go on holiday any more’ as we take our laptops, and Dr Riain Ali of Bournemouth University talks of ‘digital addiction’ and the correlation between this and depression. He tells the story of one man whose relationship ended because he would spend all day playing video games. 'Research has shown that excessive and obsessive usage are associated with reduced creativity, depression and disconnection from reality,' says Riain. 

'There is also a hidden environmental cost to creating data,' says Dr Rosie. 'It all has to been stored and transferred which uses lots of energy. We constantly create more data and are not very good at deleting. We each have to find our own way of navigating through,' she feels. 'I think one clear message from the Network’s findings is that it’s valuable to discuss technology use with colleagues: ‘Are you happy for me to email you when I’m sitting next to you?’ or ‘ I only send emails at 10pm to make up for the hours I take off to collect the children from school,’ and so on.'

The Network's most recent event was a highly successful national conference with keynote Oliver Burkeman from The Guardian.

Become a member

The Balance Network welcomes businesses, individuals and organisations involved in the fields of the digital economy and well-being at work. Join the Balance Network.