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Employers liable for ‘CrackBerry’ addiction?

It is fondly referred to as the ‘CrackBerry’ by users who find the popular mobile email device impossible to put down. But research suggests that the humorous moniker often associated with Research In Motion’s BlackBerry, may hide a more sinister and very real legal threat.

The fast and relentless pace of the technology-enhanced working environment creates a source of stimulation that may become addictive, according to Rutgers University School of Business, based in New Jersey. But employers who encourage non-stop work connections via technology may wind up with liability for encouraging addiction among their staff, the education institution warns.

“There are costs attached to excessive work due to technology,” said Gayle Porter, an associate professor of management at the Rutgers University School of Business. “Information and communication technology (ICT) addiction has been treated by policy makers as a kind of elephant in the room – everyone sees it, but no one wants to acknowledge it directly. Owing to vested interests of the employers and the ICT industry, signs of possible addiction – excess use of ICT and related stress illnesses – are often ignored,” she said.

The warning comes amid growing awareness of mental health issues associated with technology addiction. Internet and gaming addiction are both topics that feature in the news on frequent occasions.

“Courts have long recognized the special duty of employers to protect their employees. That’s why employers will warn workers of dangers that they might not foresee, and enforce rules for employee conduct that promote a safe workplace,” Porter added. She suggests that the law may evolve to incorporate technology into that mix.

“Employers rightfully provide programs to help workers with chemical or substance addictions,” she said. “Addiction to technology can be equally damaging to the mental health of the worker.”

From a legal perspective, Porter warns employers to be aware of actions that could be interpreted as encouraging 24/7 connectivity.

“If people work longer hours for personal enrichment, they assume the risk,” said Porter. “However, if an employer manipulates an individual’s propensity toward workaholism or technology addiction for the employer’s benefit, the legal perspective shifts. When professional advancement seems to depend on 24/7 connectivity, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between choice and manipulation.”

Rutgers University School of Business is not aware of any current court cases examining the subject, but the suggestion is there that it could only be a matter of time before the first company is dragged to court for encouraging alleged BlackBerry addiction.

telecoms.com’s recent feature on mobile email can be found here.


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