Intrusion of smartphones is blamed for burnout

[caption id="attachment_39841" align="alignright" width="405"] PRIVATE TIME: Cellphone access may mean picking up work mails in private time[/caption]

AS smartphones and portable devices increasingly dominate our working lives, moves are afoot in France and Germany to prevent the little electronic miracle workers from encroaching on people's private lives as well.

For several years now, some of Germany's biggest companies have been waking up to the counter-productive effects of expecting executives to be reachable around the clock.

"Burnout" has become a buzzword in recent years as an explosion in the number of work-related psychological illnesses has forced companies to rethink the demands they make on employees.

The last three or four years have seen firms such as car giant Volkswagen install virtual dams to prevent the seemingly unstoppable deluge of work-related emails from reaching stressed employees at home.

"The more work encroaches on people's private lives, the more employees are likely to suffer from stress, burnout and an inability to switch off," the national institute for occupational safety and health, BAuA, found in a recent report.

Teleworking, or using IT or telecommunications to replace work-related travel or enable work outside the office, can be a valuable option for a company because it offers flexibility, said BAuA expert Frank Brenscheidt.

Leaving the office early to pick up children from school, and then finishing off the day's work at home may suit some working parents. But if it brings with it a permanent increase in workload and extra hours, "it can make some employees ill," he said.

According to the BAuA's statistics, the number of sick days taken as a result of psychological problems has increased by more than 40% between 2008 and 2011.

German auto giant Volkswagen, at the behest of the mighty metalworkers' union IG Metall, has prescribed a daily rest period from work-related emails.

Originally aimed at around 1000 white-collar employees, the measure has since been widened to cover around 5000 staff members ­ out of a total domestic workforce of 255000.

Rival car maker BMW has come up with a different approach.

"We are aware that a boundary needs to be drawn between work and private life. But we don't want rigid rules to negate the advantages of worker flexibility," said Jochen Frey, a spokesman for BMW's personnel department.

Since the beginning of this year, more than 30000 employees can ­ in consultation with their bosses ­ carry out tasks off-site and outside normal working hours. An hour spent answering an email request can count as an hour's overtime.

Last Christmas, Daimler, maker of Mercedes-Benz cars, launched an "absence assistant" to delete emails arriving in employees' in-trays while they are on holiday. The sender of the email is alerted to the employee's absence and invited to contact a colleague instead.

In 2010, the management of Deutsche Telekom decided that employees were no longer expected to be reachable around the clock and France Telecom adopted a similar initiative that same year.

France recently introduced a "right to unplug" for workers in the technology and consultancy sectors, where there are no set working hours. The law, which sparked a lot of bemused coverage in the Anglo-Saxon media, effectively obliges workers to hang up their phones and portable devices at the office door.  ­AFP