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Digital addiction in the workplace

July 11, 2019

By Kristen Cifolelli, courtesy SBAM Approved Partner ASE

Technology over the past decade has found its way into practically every part of our daily lives.  It has transformed how we communicate, the way we interact through social media, the access we have to information, how we shop, and how we conduct business – just to name a few examples.  You look around anywhere these days, and people are staring at their electronic devices, and many they feel helpless without them.  As a result of this heavy dependence on technology, it should come as no surprise that concerns around digital addiction and the impact it may have on the workplace are on the rise.

Digital addiction is defined as an impulse control disorder that involves the obsessive use of mobile devices, the internet, or video games despite the negative consequences of this compulsive behavior to the user of the technology.  While not yet officially recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), there have been significant calls to continue research and include it as a disorder in later publications.  In the meantime, the following criteria are often used to help diagnose digital addiction:

  • Preoccupation with the Internet/social media (constantly thinks about past use or future use)

  • Needs to use the Internet/social media with increased amounts of time to gain satisfaction

  • Has made unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop use of the Internet/social media

  • Is restless, moody, depressed, or irritable when attempting to control Internet/social media use

  • Has stayed online longer than originally intended

  • Has jeopardized or risked the loss of a significant relationship, job, educational, or career opportunity because of the Internet/social media

  • Has lied to family members, therapists, or others to conceal their involvement with the Internet/social media

  • Uses the Internet/social media as a way of escaping from problems or to relieve a dysphoric mood (e.g., guilt, anxiety, depression, helplessness)

So how does this impact employers?  Just like any addiction such as drugs, alcohol, and gambling, digital addiction can interfere with an individual’s daily life and the performance of major life activities such as sleeping, eating, and working.  Often, digital addictions can arise out of feelings such as stress, pressure, anxiety, and other underlying mental health conditions. 

Do you have employees who seem to spend an inordinate amount of time online? Is it affecting their performance and inhibiting their ability to perform the essential functions of their jobs?  These employees may possibility have a digital addiction that could need accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) similar to other physical or mental health conditions.  Employers should engage employees in the regular ADA interactive process to review and discuss restrictions, limitations, and accommodations that may be necessary.

What makes digital addiction so difficult is separating what can often be mindless, incessant checking of phones to the more compulsive, addictive behaviors. The following are best practices and recommendations for dealing with digital addictions provided by attorneys from the law firm Fisher Phillips, LLP:

Maintain an up-to-date employee handbook addressing leaves & accommodations – Make sure the organization’s employee handbook has been updated and has clear procedures regarding requests for leaves and accommodations.

Handbook acknowledgement signed by employees – Employers should have on file employee handbook acknowledgements that employees are aware of the organization’s policies and procedures regarding accommodation requests. 

Documentation – Document notice of the employee’s alleged disability, meetings, and communications, requested accommodations and whether they were offered or denied.  It is important to have proof that these discussions took place.

Train managers and supervisors – Managers and supervisors will typically be the first to be made aware of an alleged disability or requested accommodation.  If they fail to take this seriously and begin the interactive process, the organization’s defense can be severely undermined.  They need to understand what constitutes being on “notice” and that the organization has obligations under the ADA to engage in an interactive dialog and to handle accommodation requests.

Do not be quick in denying accommodations – ADA requires that each accommodation request be considered in “good faith.”  Document any legitimate reason why an accommodation may not be reasonable but also understand that not every request is unreasonable.  While employers do not have to provide accommodations that are unduly burdensome, undue burden is an extremely tough standard to meet and is looked at primarily in financial terms by courts.

Stay on top of employment law regarding digital addictions – Continue to stay abreast of changing legislation in order to avoid future claims.

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