Could You Be Liable For Your Employees’ “Crack-Berry” Addiction?

You’ve heard the joke before; people calling their Blackberry a “crack-berry” to indicate their addictive relationship with the electronic device. While the 24/7 connectivity offered by this and similar devices might seem like an employer’s productivity dream come true, it could be time to think again.

Studies are showing that this type of addiction is every bit as hard to break as a drug or alcohol addiction. One T-Mobile poll found that 1 in 10 BlackBerry users said they would be “devastated” if their device was taken away, and many said they feel far more stressed when they do not have their device with them than when they are without. Some Blackberry addicts feel the urge to check their e-mail every few minutes and cannot set it down even in social situations, such as in the movies or when having dinner with friends.

While the effects of this addiction are not quite as damaging as drugs or alcohol, they are there. Workaholism has been a widespread phenomenon for some time, and it has now been suggested that employers may soon be held legally liable for addictions to such devices—especially if they encourage or demand such behavior from their employees.

Psychiatrist Dr. Edward Hallowell, the founder of The Hallowell Center for Cognitive and Emotional Health, says that today’s high-adrenaline, ‘always on’ work environment is causing people to feel ‘crazy busy’ and it’s affecting their health, their effectiveness, and their personal lives. “I’m not a Luddite. If you use it right, (technology) is an incredible aid. If your daughter has a cell phone for an emergency on the highway, that’s wonderful. But I made up a word in my book CrazyBusy called, ”pizzled.” It’s how you feel when you’re eating with someone and their phone rings and they answer it. It’s a combination of [expletive] off and puzzled. We have to be a lot more in charge of technology instead of just being so enchanted by it.”

So when should an employer be held accountable? There are no current court cases examining that argument—but employers are responsible for providing a safe and healthy work environment. If they pressure their employees to use technology to stay connected 24/7, that demand may carry employer responsibility for detrimental outcomes to the employees.
Obviously, if employees work longer hours for personal enrichment or for self-satisfaction, they assume the risk. But if an employer manipulates an individual’s propensity toward workaholism or technology addiction for the employer’s benefit, the legal perspective shifts.
Naturally, this is a very gray area. When an employee works longer hours to achieve professional advancement or to catch up for taking time off or to make up for slow performance, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between employee choice and employer manipulation.
The best thing you can do as an employer is to encourage your staff to take breaks from e-mail, cell phones, and BlackBerry devices especially after hours or on vacation.

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