Commentary

It’s time to limit personal use of mobile phones during work

It’s time to limit personal use of mobile phones during work
Few firms in Singapore have established policies on mobile-phone usage and almost none seem willing to risk taking a firm stand. Photo: Reuters
Published: 4:15 AM, December 8, 2015
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From family dinners to watching movies, people seem to spend more time texting or surfing than talking. Indeed, IKEA’s Life at Home Survey showed that 83 per cent of Singaporeans use their phone during mealtimes even though a majority find that behaviour annoying.

While phones during family and social events may be irritating, what is far more worrying is the health and security risks as well as the lower productivity caused by people using personal mobile phones on the job.

Head to the airport, for example, and you may well see security guards distracted by their phones. Your doctor often takes a call or reads a message during an appointment.

More than a quarter of the drivers polled recently in the AXA Singapore Road User Behaviour Survey admitted to texting while driving and more than 80 per cent in an earlier survey said they used the phone while driving.

Such use of phones can have dire consequences.

Research led by SingHealth’s Marine Parade Polyclinic director Dr Agnes Koong, for example, showed that incoming phone calls could distract healthcare workers and result in errors that put patient safety at risk. In the United States, Samuel Merritt University Professor Deborah McBride similarly found that registered nurses frequently use personal mobile phones in hospitals, where vigilance is essential, and the distraction could be hazardous to patients.

Other firms suffer from staff using mobile devices too. A study in the United Kingdom showed that 41 per cent of workers use their smartphones for texting and checking emails during meetings, and more than a third said digital distractions made it difficult for them to finish their work. And drivers, whether they are in taxis or lorries or any other vehicles, are four times as likely to have an accident if they use their mobile phone while driving, according to the US National Safety Council. Even just the buzz from a mobile phone notification can reduce work performance. A study by Florida State University researcher Cary Stothart found that the reverberations from mobile phone notifications were just as distracting as voice calls or text messages, with people who were aware of an alert being three times as likely to make mistakes.

It is not only workers who do worse when they use mobile phones. Student performance suffers as well. Kent State University Associate Professor Andrew Lepp found that increased mobile-phone use was linked to decreased academic performance.

A study of schools in England that banned mobile phone usage, led by Louisiana State University Professor Louis-Philippe Beland, similarly found that student performance in examinations increased significantly following the ban. Perhaps more importantly, that better performance was driven by the lowest-achieving students, which perhaps suggests that restricting mobile phone use can reduce educational inequality.

These results do not mean that there is no benefit from using mobile phones at work. Indeed, smartphones can significantly improve results when they are part of the job. In India, farmers increased their incomes by using mobile phones to get weather forecasts and figure out the best time for harvests. And an automobile company in Australia that provides replacement cars to people who have been in accidents doubled its productivity by using mobile phones to deploy staff more effectively.

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