Eugene Farrell: App addiction? How Pokémon Go could be affecting your employees

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App phenomenon Pokémon Go is inspiring the unlikeliest of players to take to the streets and walk for miles in pursuit of rare, virtual reality characters. And it’s not simply a game for the young – 40 per cent of adults who have downloaded it are aged 25 or older.* Pokémon Go may well be the most popular app of all time so there’s a strong chance a quota of your employees are ‘out to catch them all’. But when does a hobby turn into something more serious and even become an addiction? While they may be few in number, this new obsession could seriously harm the focus, productivity, sleeping pattern and mood of some of your employees – with serious ramifications for your business.

When advising on work-life balance, HR professionals commonly discourage employees from working long hours and instead encourage them to try to switch off when they’ve left for the day. While game-play during short, allocated breaks is a great way to take a breather from concentrated work, overdoing it can lead to work-life imbalance, with all sort of tasks and activities being neglected in favour of gaming. This is addiction territory and may seriously affect employees’ performance and productivity. As soon as an employee signs an employment contract, you both commit to giving and receiving in return. Therefore, you are within your rights to initiate disciplinary action when employees are wilfully ignoring their work. However, knowing where the line is – or when employees are nearing or crossing it – can be tricky, especially for HR professionals who don’t necessarily work on the same floor or even the same building as the employee in question.

The ‘chase’ element of Pokémon Go has seen people walking long distances, with the exercise undoubtedly benefiting their health. In addition the exercise gained is not the positive clear your head and relaxed type but rather an obsessive, driven and pressured type. Withdrawal from playing and or fear of missing out can even trigger anxiety – a sense of foreboding and restlessness that can also adversely affect people’s quality of sleep.

UK workers already lose between eight and nine days of work every year due to lack of sleep, according to a 2015 poll of 2500 working people conducted by Big Health.** The study showed that poor sleep quality adversely affects concentration (46 per cent), ability to complete work (38 per cent) and stay awake during the day (27 per cent). Given that rare Pokémon creatures come out at night, employees roaming about into the late or small hours could be compromising their shuteye and lead to their turning up for work far from able to give their best.

If employees’ minds are preoccupied with thoughts of the last game and or anticipation of the next ‘fix’, the quality of their work is likely to suffer. Their productivity slump may in turn lead their workload to mount, adding stress to the anxiety they are already feeling. They may even come to resent their job because it stops them from gaming and or feel guilty or inadequate because they know they’re under-performing. Whatever the case, frustration, irritability and disengagement are scarcely conducive to good employee-employer relations. As with any addiction, withdrawal can significantly lower mood. In addition to being demotivating for the employee (further hindering productivity), it can also damage employee relations. Staff morale and a strong team ethos are integral to business success. And players who slip into an ‘every man for himself’ mentality may soon become socially isolated, making matters worse.

How you choose to tackle gaming addiction in your office depends on your relationship with your employees. It is of course important to check the extent to which it is affecting your business productivity, for which line mangers are as ever an invaluable source of good intelligence. Is the office a whole lot emptier come lunchtime? Are employees finding excuses to leave their desks during work? Has there been a change in atmosphere or morale? Are conversations lapsing into app chat? If you’ve noticed a new preoccupation with Pokémon Go, it may be time to address the situation. It doesn’t have to be a ‘Pokémoan’ (no one wants to be seen as a killjoy) and you can’t take employees’ smartphones away but, if you’re worried about performance, look for ways to retune their focus. If they’re struggling with their workload, let them know that you are there to support them. Pokémon Go may just be a passing fad, but it may be having a significant impact on some of your employees’ wellbeing and, in extreme cases, putting their livelihoods in jeopardy. So be smart and watch for the signs of addiction – and be ready to act. It’ll hold you in good stead both for this and for the next gaming craze that comes along.

*Alvin Change (2016). 40% of adults who have downloaded Pokémon Go are 25 or older. Vox Culture:
http://www.vox.com/culture/2016/7/14/12190170/pokemon-go-ios-android-adult-age

**Natasha Hinde (2015). Sleep deprivation results in workers spending eight days off sick every year, survey finds. Huffington Post UK:
http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/12/21/workers-spend-eight-days-off-sick-every-year-due-to-poor-sleep_n_8852992.html

By Eugene Farrell, Head of Trauma Support Services for AXA PPP healthcare

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