January 09, 2006
Cell Phones Increase Home And Work Stress

Cell phones eliminate home as a refuge from work and work as a refuge from home.

MILWAUKEE — Are the electronic gadgets designed to make us accessible anytime, anywhere making the lives of dual-income families easier? Maybe not. A study by a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) indicates that use of cell phones and pagers by one large sample of married or partnered couples is adding stress to family life – especially for women.

The study finds a link between use of cell phones and pagers and increased psychological distress and lower family satisfaction among the sample, says Noelle Chesley, an assistant professor of sociology, because it allows yet another way to bring job worries home after work.

Women in the study were doubly affected because they indicated that the greater access also allowed home concerns to spill over into the work day, something the men did not experience.

"What we found was that it was a negative experience for both men and women, but women had the added problem of home life invading work," Chesley says. For women, the consequences of cell phone access may be increased calls from children or elderly family members, calls that are usually placed because a problem has arisen at home.

The survey sample included 1,367 people who were employed at one of seven organizations in upstate New York. To be eligible for the study, respondents had to be married or partnered with someone who also worked outside the home.

"We wanted to get a sense of the trends or patterns for a larger group," she says, "but it was by no means a national or random sample. You can, however, get a sense of – ‘is this more of a blessing or more of a curse?' – among a large group of workers."

I watch people in offices scramble to run back to their desk when they hear their cell phone ringing and think that surely if they weren't within hearing range of the cell phone the vast bulk of the time no damage would be done. Their spouses call up and unload on them about some worry or problem that the spouse could handle or wait to tell them later. So the results of the study above sound very plausible to me.

People need time to relax and an absence of interruptions at both work and home. There ought to be way for people to call up with differing levels of urgency signalled by how they dial the number they are calling. That way a person could set their interrupt level higher when they need to avoid interrupts while still being available for emergencies. Granted, some would abuse the ability to signal an emergency. But others would respect the priority levels and not abuse the top priorities except when necessary.

I've yet to get a cell phone and some people act surprised when I say this. But I see it as a productivity degrader and stress enhancer. I get too many phone calls as it is and I have no spare time. Why make the problem worse?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2006 January 09 10:12 PM  Comm Tech Society

Jody said at January 9, 2006 11:12 PM:

Or you can just not answer your phone when you don't feel like it. If it's important, they'll leave a message.

Vinny said at January 10, 2006 12:19 AM:

Easy way to get fired, at some jobs.

Tom said at January 10, 2006 4:55 AM:

I long ago asked my wife not to call me at work unless it's necessary. It may sound mean, but it keeps me focused.

Jody said at January 10, 2006 5:45 AM:

Vinny: Perhaps I should expand upon my comment.

The point of this article was separating home life from work life (and vice versa). As every cellphone I know displays the number that's calling, you can screen the calls. If I'm at work and it's a work number, of course, I answer it - they're paying for my time. But if it's from home and I'm at work and I don't feel like answering it, I don't answer. To paraphrase Tom, if it's absolutely necessary, they'll leave a message.

Then the same thing holds in reverse. After work, that's my time, so if I'm at home and work calls, I generally let the call go to voicemail.

In other words, I view Randall's lament of an inability to separate work from home due to cell phones as akin to parents who complain about smut or a lack of good programming on TV. To get the good aspects of TV (which those parents are implicitly acknowledging), all the parents have to do with the TV is change the channel (or turn it off), and all they have to do with the cell phone is not answer it when you don't feel like it. This basic approach of excising the features you don't like is even easier with a cell phone as you're always the one in control of the phone which is not always the case with the TV.

Now some parents solve the dilemma of TV by not having a TV at all, but I think that's an example of throwing the baby out with the bath water and I think Randall is doing the same by choosing to not have a cell phone rather than having a phone for when he needs it and just ignoring calls when he feels answering would be stressful or unproductive.

Nick said at January 10, 2006 12:24 PM:

The core of the problem is that some people don't have the power to say no, especially employees. Before cell phones, you could just be inaccessible - now there's no excuse.

aa2 said at January 10, 2006 1:41 PM:

I think people on average don't really want to eliminate stress. I think if they did they would do as you do Randall. And not get or renew their cell phone, or turn it off when at home. But obviously people can't talk enough on their phones. I worked at ATT wireless a few years ago, and the average bill was 70$/month.

spiny widgmo said at January 11, 2006 3:14 AM:

I think the most important skill today and into the future is how to say no gracefully and follow though. This covers food, requests for time, purchases, credit and avoiding interruptions.

Akhee said at January 23, 2006 11:14 AM:

I agree with Randall's solution of just not having a cell phone. Before cell phones were invented people servived just fine. My cell phone bill is $100 a month ($85 + second phone for my wife). I also have a home phone. From a financial point of view it is excessive, from a phychological context it's stressful and rude when the phone rings in class, at work, on the bus, in public etc. I think I'll just buy a $20 phone card for when I'm not at home.

George said at April 27, 2006 6:11 AM:

"Hi this is Bob, I'm not available for routine calls at the moment. Please leave a message at the tone. If your call is important, press 1 after your message and follow the prompts to mark your message a priority. If your call is a real emergency press 3 now and I will answer promptly. Please only press 3 if your call is a real emergency. Thanks for calling." Beep!

I'm a PBX engineer (design & program commercial telephone systems), and have designed that feature and had it available for home and office systems for about ten years. Originally I called it PASS, for Personal Automatic Screening System. In the home it means that you can sleep without being disturbed by routine calls, yet knowing that urgent calls can get through. At work it minimizes casual distractions. The smallest systems equipped with it are a couple thousand bucks installed, and it can be programmed at no cost on any current model Panasonic office PBX. Another variation on the same theme does not announce the magic digit in the greeting, and lets the user assign 3-digit code numbers to callers instead of a single digit. Another version screens calls based on Caller ID. Meanwhile, with Panasonic PBX systems going as far back as about 8 years, you can also press a button on your digital office telephone and it acts like a home answering machine: you can hear callers leaving voicemail messages, via the speaker on the phone, and pick up the receiver when you want to answer a call live.

There is no reason why the basic PASS feature couldn't be integrated in telco central office switches and made available to residential and cellular numbers. (Business lines would have little need of it, since in almost every case they are seeking to be open to calls and a receptionist or voicemail auto attendant will do the screening.)

Meanwhile, as to cellphones, I haven't had one for years and I do not miss it. Interruptions destroy productivity in any profession that calls for unbroken concentration. According to published studies, males who are subjected to frequent interruptions suffer a transient drop in cognitive function equivalent to 15 IQ points (females only suffered a 5-point drop; perhaps this partially explains the ability of women, more than men, to handle office manager and administrative jobs?). With cellphones there is the added aggravation of "huh, what did you say?" and "hello are you still there?", to a degree that has not been the case since about 1930. Yes, my 70-something-year-old antique dial phones have better sound quality than modern cellphones. Sad comment on "progress," that.

Fact is, there are very few real emergencies that require interrupting someone at an inappropriate moment. Mostly there are people who have turned impatience into a lifestyle and become spoiled. Maybe they need to go back to using dial phones. That would slow them down.

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