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Always On!

By Mark Watts

The heavy toll of “always on” technology, emails, instant messages and texts — and the expectation that they’ll be responded to immediately — are driving workers to distraction. Are radiologists as focused as they need to be? Do technologists spend less than productive hours at work due to omnipresent social media vectors? Could this distraction lead to fatigue and burnout?

I drove my family to the Florida beach from Tennessee 14 years ago. As a corporate director I was recently given a Blackberry and felt connected to work. It was only when my son, at the time 5 years old, asked me an innocent question, “Can’t you just leave that (Blackberry) in the car?”

As a director we ask employees to “check your email daily.” From an operations standpoint this lets us document the transfer of knowledge and change. How quickly should employees respond to emails? In most workplaces the answer is “right away.” But scientific research is starting to suggest that managers need to recognize the effect that being “always on” has on employee stress and overall efficiency.

More than a decade after the smartphone’s introduction, researchers have been tracking and analyzing its impact — and that of its addictive nature on our brains.

In the book “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World” (The MIT Press, 2016), neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and psychologist Larry D. Rosen reveal what happens in our brains when we get interrupted or self-distract and how that affects us behaviorally and psychologically. The book explains how Internet-connected devices and expectations for immediate responses to communications degrade our attention, with implications not just for productivity but also for mental health and stress levels in the workplace.

The question is, what can radiology managers do to minimize unnecessary interruptions for their staff? Have you noted a fellow worker who is always “on their phone?” Delay of service to “just check” for updates? This is not as simple as locking up phones when an employee reports to work.

Managers want as much productivity as possible, of course, but they should be aware that when employees are interrupted by a communication such as email, instant message or text, it not only distracts their attention, but it can keep them away from the task they were engaged in for a substantial period of time. One study estimates that the resumption lag in getting back to the original task is nearly 15 minutes, on average. In addition, when people return to the task, they have to reactivate the brain networks that were being used to address it which takes additional time and effort.

Ultimately, employees can do just as good a job as they would if they haven’t been interrupted, because they work more quickly than ever after the interruption. But this comes at a cost: time delays, the need to use extra work hours to complete the interrupted tasks and additional stress. Workers are being interrupted far too often and suffering far too much unnecessary frustration and anxiety as a result.

Researchers are just now starting to compile data on the impact of technology use on the brain, on sleep, on productivity and on learning. They have found strong negative effects in many cases. The research clearly indicates that the impact from so many interruptions on our mental and emotional functioning is vast and needs to be addressed.

The majority of tech-induced interruptions that take place at work are self-generated, where employees are checking in, checking email and checking up on one another — without external direction. How can health care leaders help?

A general plan needs to be in place across the organization to help workers avoid this constant checking-in behavior. First, the health care system must implement policies on online communications. Some companies have a 7-to-7 rule, where communications sent before 7 a.m. or after 7 p.m. do not need to be answered until the workday begins.

Second, we have, over time, built up expectations that communications deserve priority over everything else and that we should address them immediately. We must start changing these expectations. One way is to set a workplace norm that digital communications should be dealt with in, say, 30 minutes, or whatever works. If a communication is vital, then it should be moved to a phone call or even a face-to-face discussion so that it gets addressed immediately.

Third, we have developed an almost Pavlovian response to incoming communications, which we have to quell. Leaders need to consider a technique called a “tech break.” This means that you close down any websites on devices that are not relevant to work, including email and texting, and you set a timer on the phone for 15 minutes. You place the phone directly in your line of sight — but upside down to remove the flashing alerts from your line of sight — as a reminder that you’re still on tech break. When the alarm rings, you can check anything for one minute. Then you are “taking control of your own interruptibility.” This is critical to productivity, and managers should encourage their workers to do it.

After this is comfortable, start again. This is a flexible plan, so it can be longer than one minute, but it needs to be timed. You go 15 minutes without checking in and then increase it to 20 and then 30 minutes.

Implementing the tech-break strategy, along with technology-free hours and even technology-free zones in the office, will go a long way toward alleviating distraction.

The common thought is that millennials want to be connected and think they can multitask effectively, even when scientific studies show that’s not the case. Meanwhile, older people were more distractible than younger adults and have more issues with task switching and multitasking. Regardless of a person’s age, nobody multitasks all that well. Making rules for different people due to age doesn’t make any sense.

One way my research has influenced me personally is that when we found a major impact of late-night technology use on sleep problems, I stopped using my phone and tablet one hour prior to bedtime. Instead, I “single task” by watching TV.

The move from film to PACS, the move from phone to smartphone and the development and training of the current human brain has impacted our ability to focus and complete radiology tasks in the same manner we did 15 years ago.

If we consider the results of an “always on” brain and workplace, I hope you see it is time we retrain ourselves to turn off and enjoy the sounds of the waves at the beach.

Mark Watts has over 20 years as an imaging professional with vast expertise in imaging informatics and IT issues. He has served in many roles in both hospitals and industry as a health care vice president, imaging director and IT consultant. His knowledge and experience in the convergence of IT and imaging has made him a sought after author, speaker and consultant. He has authored a textbook on informatics and was a pioneer in the adoption and development of PACS and VNA technologies.

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