Friday, 11 March 2016

Put it away – Spending work breaks on your smartphone is not rejuvenating

In the old days, a break from work used to involve a chat in the canteen, a crossword, or time spent gazing out the window. Nowadays, of course, we have smartphones to fill our spare minutes. Is this a good thing? New research published in Computers in Human Behavior suggests that smartphone use may be just as much of a distraction from work as our old habits, but there’s a downside – it leaves us in a poorer mood than if we’d left the handset in the bag.

Hongjai Rhee and Sudong Kim asked 425 South Korean participants from a range of organisations to complete a survey at the end of a single day, and to report whether they’d used smartphones during their lunch break, and how they’d felt during and after that break.

In general, breaks are useful because they provide us with opportunities to psychologically detach from work-related concerns and they allow our minds to roam freely. Smartphones offer lots in the way of distraction, so Rhee and Kim expected phone-using participants to enjoy just as much psychological detachment during lunch as those who spent the time having a conversation or taking a walk, and this was borne out by the data.

But the results also showed that phone use during lunch was associated with higher levels of emotional exhaustion during the afternoon. This seems to be because phone-based distraction just isn't as rejuvenating. Whereas more psychological detachment during breaktime was associated with experiencing fewer post-lunch negative feelings among the phone-free participants – perhaps because they’d spent lunch time chatting football instead of sales figures – the benefits of breaktime escapism were missing for even the most distracted phone users. Swallowed up in protecting their pixellated plasma towers, these participants enjoyed no relief from negative feelings later in the day.

This study didn't randomly allocate participants to use phones or engage in other breaktime activities, so it’s possible that workers who are prone to emotional exhaustion are the same people who are more inclined to find company in their phones at lunchtime, rather than their phone habit being responsible for their problems.

Notwithstanding this interpretation, the new findings suggest that smartphones deliver distraction but not the emotional relief normally offered by detaching from work. Rhee and Kim suggest that this may be for a variety of reasons. Users can experience neck pain and dry eyes, for instance, and may be trading the stress of tackling work tasks for machine-administered ones that are fatiguing in themselves. So be warned: as engrossing as phone use may be, it probably won’t provide the pick-me-up that you really need.


Rhee, H., & Kim, S. (2016). Effects of breaks on regaining vitality at work: An empirical comparison of ‘conventional’ and ‘smart phone’ breaks Computers in Human Behavior, 57, 160-167 DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2015.11.056

--further reading--
A new questionnaire measures people's "no mobile phone phobia" or nomophobia
The psychological toll of being off-duty but "on call"
Mobile phone use can be beneficial
How the mere presence of a mobile phone harms face-to-face conversations

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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