Battling Nomophobia In The Workplace

A few weeks ago I asked my oldest daughter, who is a sophomore at college, what percent of students does she see when she is walking across campus who are engaging with an electronic device. She quickly replied, “At least 85 percent.” Wow!

Her response spurred me to do some further research on just how connected we are to our mobile devices. In a Harris Interactive Poll conducted last year, 63 percent of respondents said they check their phone for messages or calls once an hour. Nine percent said they check their phone every five minutes. An article in Psychology Today reported that one in five people would rather go without shoes for a week than take a break from their phone.

Now we have a word for this unhealthy connection to our mobile devices. It’s called “Nomophobia.” The word is an abbreviation for “No-mobile-phone-phobia,” a phrase that was coined in a 2010 study by the UK post office. Symptoms of nomophobia include feelings of panic or desperation when separated from your mobile device or unable to establish an Internet connection. As you can imagine, other symptoms include checking your phone almost constantly for notifications, and feeling the need to respond to them immediately. There's even a cool infographic about nomophobia.

While it would be easy to point a finger at those who are “younger” (whatever that means), I think we can both agree that nomophobia is spreading quickly within the workplace. I am seeing a consistent increase in the frequency that individuals use their smartphones or tablets during a presentation, at their work area, during breaks, and even when eating a meal with coworkers. All this time on a mobile device has the negative impact of reduced productivity, less ability to focus, and a lack of quality face-to-face interactions.

So what’s the solution? Throw up our hands and accept this condition as a sign of the times? I don’t think so. While we won’t ever gain full control over this distraction in the workplace, I believe that a little education can go a long way in helping others (and ourselves) recognize its impact on our performance. Here’s how:

Understand the neuroscience driving the behavior. Dr. David Greenfield, who founded the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, said in an interview with Business Insider, “Every time you get a notification from your phone, there's a little elevation in dopamine that says you might have something that's compelling, whether that's a text message from someone you like, an email, or anything. The thing is you don't know what it's going to be or when you're going to get it, and that's what compels the brain to keep checking. It's like the world's smallest slot machine."

Recognize how smartphones feed our desire to constantly answer basic questions about ourself. In a TEDxSF talk, Scott Hess spoke about the three questions we all want answered about ourselves when we are 14. After hearing them, I smiled because I could see my dad at 85 still seeking answers to these same questions. They are: Where are my friends and what are they doing?,” “Where do I find people like me?,” and “Does anyone know how awesome I am?” Smartphones are a perfect tool to provide answers (albeit sometimes false) to these questions at any moment.

Evaluate the impact of all this switching back and forth. All of us have experienced those times when we were “in the zone” while working on something. Ideas are freely flowing, solutions are becoming more clear, and we have a strong sense of direction. Constantly switching back and forth between a task and checking our mobile devices only serves to limit those times when we can think deeply about the work that is in front of us.

Now comes the hard part… changing behavior. Some potential solutions to combating nomophobia might include:

  • Setting boundaries. Create simple rules like “No use of my smartphone while eating lunch,” or “No holding my smartphone in my hand while talking to a coworker,” or “No responding to notifications while engaging in conversations with others at work.”
  • Turning off your mobile phone for a specific period of time during the work day. When in the office, I use the period from 9 AM-12 Noon as my “No notification time.” In addition to my mobile phone, I set my tablet to airplane mode.
  • Balancing technology time with face-to-face time. Force yourself to engage in conversations with coworkers from time to time-without your mobile device in your hand. If you work alone, pick up a phone and actually talk to someone who is a positive influence in your life. That’s the old fashioned way to get a “like.”
  • Giving yourself permission to do nothing for a few minutes each day. Don’t just stop working and pick up your mobile device. Do absolutely nothing for a few minutes. Give your mind a chance to refresh and seek out deeper thoughts. If you need more on the power of doing nothing, read my recent blog post on the subject.
  • Getting help. Menthal is an app you can install on your smartphone that will keep track of how much time you spend using it. You might be shocked to find just how much those 5 minute peeks at your Instagram account are costing you in productivity.
  • When reaching for your smartphone, asking yourself, “Is this the best use of time right now?” Using your mobile device, just like reaching for a bag of chips, or mindlessly watching TV, is often a symptom of a larger issue like procrastination or boredom.
  • Moving your smartphone away from your work area. Greenfield’s comment that “Convenience is the mother of addiction” highlights the need to make our phones less accessible if we are constantly reaching for them. Don’t try to move it away for the whole day. Start with 30 minutes.

With its appeal to our sense of belonging and affirmation, there is no question that nomophobia will continue to plague the workplace and our personal lives. However, educating ourselves on its allure and taking concrete actions to combat it could help prevent us from posting a comment that ends in #lookingforwork.

Who do you know that needs to learn more about nomophobia?