Smart phones have become an indispensable part of life for many Cayman Islands residents.

They enable flexible working, allow far flung families to stay in touch and provide a constant stream of entertainment and information.

From listening to music or podcasts to ordering food or reading this article, if you are in Cayman, the chances are that you are using a smart phone to do it.

The island is one of the most connected places in the world, with cellphone ownership hovering just above 150%. In other words, most of us have a phone and around half of us have two.

But experts are becoming increasingly concerned about the flip side of constant connectivity.

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Overuse and abuse of smart phones is a global trend that has blurred the lines between work and home life, contributed to mental health concerns and, in some cases, eroded personal relationships.

Therapists, business coaches and company leaders are seeing all those trends in Cayman.

The desire, and in some cases requirement, to be tethered to a device accelerated during the pandemic when digital connections were the only means of communication for friends, families and businesses, says Cayman Islands-based counsellor Terry Delaney.

He said overuse and even addiction to smart phones are growing concerns in Cayman, impacting couples, young people and stressed-out white-collar workers.

“It is even more fragile now that we have been through a pandemic. People are going to be at breaking point. The corporate world has to give a little break here,” he said.

Pressure, both real and imagined, to be on-call 24/7 is a natural consequence of being given a phone by your employer – a common workplace policy in Cayman, according to Sara Jan, of Kerage Unlimited, an organisational performance and leadership agency.

If that perk comes without clear discussions or policies about how and when employees are expected to be connected, it is natural for workers to assume that there are strings attached.

“A lot of my clients feel overwhelmed,” says Jan, who does one-on-one career coaching with employees as well as organisations.

Sara Jan

“They are working their full day and coming home to look after their family, and the phone is still pinging.”

She advises business leaders and workers to set clear guidelines about what is expected and ensure people are able to disconnect.

The never-ending work day

While the pandemic accelerated a culture of flexibility in terms of hours and location, the end of the traditional 9-to-5 office day is not something to be celebrated if it is replaced by a remote working culture that has no beginning and no end, cautions Steve McIntosh, founder and CEO of Career Point, which offers career-advancement advice to young people.

He warns of a phenomenon of “toxic ambiguity” where employees feel pressure to comply with expectations that don’t necessarily exist because clear boundaries have not been established.

“Companies can do everyone a big favour by establishing some common protocols around out-of-hours communication. For example, it would help for someone senior to let everyone know that while emails can be sent at any time, no one should be expected to check their emails or reply outside office hours.”

Employees should feel comfortable taking the initiative and asking for clarification where there is doubt, he said.

Steve McIntosh

The impacts of constant connectivity on work/life balance are beginning to be recognised globally.

France became the first country to legislate the issue in 2016, passing a labour law creating the “right to disconnect”. The law requires businesses to have policies that allow employees to switch off their phones and ignore work emails on their own time.

Such sweeping legislation may be a blunt instrument to deal with a complex issue. Both Jan and McIntosh suggest that clear expectations and communication between companies and employees are the best way to manage expectations.

“It’s hard to argue that it is inconsiderate of me to send you an email at a time that’s convenient for me to write it,” says McIntosh, “After all, I can’t control when you decide to read it.”

For businesses tempted to exploit the goodwill of staff who are inclined to answer messages at any time of day or night, Jan warns that smart phones are contributing to increasing reports of burnout. She says a constantly connected environment isn’t good for the company or the employee.

“People need to be able to switch off and recuperate. If you are ‘always on’, you are not showing up at your best the next day.”

Equally, answering phones and emails throughout the work day can be a distraction from the real work.

She advises clients to set a period of time each day, or a couple of times each day, where they respond to messages, and to leave their phones and their alerts off when they have specific tasks to concentrate on.

“Contrary to what everyone thinks, your brain can only fully focus on one thing at once,” she said.

Beyond the workplace

The addictive nature of smart phones is a built-in design feature, warns Delaney.

Terry Delaney

Apps, alerts and algorithms are set up to grab your attention and keep you scrolling. The consequences spiral beyond the workplace.

He sees young people suffering from anxiety and couples struggling with their relationships, and the cause is often the attention being sucked away by phones. It’s another form of addiction that contributes to a lack of mental wellbeing.

“Like so many things, the person themselves doesn’t see it as a problem. It is usually a partner or a parent that identifies it as an issue out of frustration.

“If a couple is sitting down for a movie night and one person is constantly on the phone, the other person literally feels abandoned,” Delaney said.

For young people, anxiety around social media or addiction to gaming are common issues.

He advises clients to manage their phone use to prevent it from managing them. Simple guidelines, like not having devices in the bedroom and not checking messages first thing in the morning, can help create healthier habits.

Smart phones are not going away and there is no incentive for tech companies to make their products less addictive.

The answer, says Delaney, lies with personal responsibility.

“It is on us; we need to learn how to control it,” he said.

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