Health and safety guidance for journalists typically focuses on traditional issues like working in dangerous locations, or using desktop computers. Few resources tackle the issues raised by frequent use of mobile devices for work. One exception is a new ebook on Instagram by one of my students, Robyn Bateman. In this extract, Robyn outlines the potential side effects of frequent mobile phone use and techniques to combat that.
I’m interested in Instagram, but I’m also interested in the potential health implications for mobile journalists or, indeed, anyone regularly using a mobile phone to create content out in the field. Including Instagrammers.
I suffer terribly from this. Bought on by bad posture and enhanced by a lot of computer and mobile phone use, I get everything from a numb hand and arm, to tension in my jaw, knotted shoulders, dizzy and tired spells.
So I did some research — and the good news is our mobile phones aren’t to blame: we are. We don’t have to ditch smartphones for personal or professional use (or both), we just have to change the way we use them.
Addicted to your phone?
Intrigued by the lack of health and safety information in place regarding the use of mobile devices for work (an essential part of a mobile journalist’s role) and the impact working in this way can have on our posture and nervous system, I caught up with physiotherapist Alastair Greetham.
Alastair sees a variety of people with postural issues, many exacerbated by the tools and technology the modern world makes it impossible for us to ignore. But he’s not seeing more people than he used to.
Postural issues, he says, are not new. It’s the impact our posture has on our nervous system that we need to worry about — plus potentially addictive behaviours, like reaching for a smartphone to scroll through Facebook out of habit rather than interest or need. Or using the Instagram app daily when you’re running a pilot!
Alastair frequently deals with office-based issues and encourages people to set up their desks in a way that’s going to work for their bodies, comfort and longer term health. He’s not saying anyone should give up work.
And it’s the same for mobile phone users: we don’t need to give phones up, just change the way we use them.
I’m looking at this from the perspective of mobile journalism but, of course, this applies to anyone using a smartphone regularly, particularly those using them for work. And I use mine professionally every day: thanks to the work I’m doing on Instagram, I’m pretty much attached to my phone.
Blurring the boundaries between home and work
How easy it is to blur the boundaries between work and home life when the mobile phone travels with you in both (known as a digital brain switch thanks to a research project by The Open University’s Helen Roby and colleagues)?
How many of us quickly check our work email on our phones or tablets from the sofa at home, just because we can, not because we need to or even want to?
While the French recently won the right not to check email out of hours, for many of us mobile access adds to workplace efficiency: news doesn’t always break between 9am and 5pm and, as my Instagram project reminds me, evening is often the best time to post because it’s when most people are firing up their social media apps.
And as I’ve suggested in the ebook, a full Instagram pilot includes posting daily, and that means weekends.
Health and safety info, in the main, relates to desktop working, PCs and laptops, with little consideration for portable devices like tablets and smartphones.
In fact, most references to mobile phone use at work are linked to distraction, i.e your workplace should have a mobile phone policy in order to keep staff off them so they can do their work.
Mobile Office Ltd specialises in supporting people who are ‘mobile’ when they work, from using laptops on trains, agile work patterns and hot desking, to daily use of smartphones and tablets. Their report ‘Ergonomic Risks in Mobile Working’ states:
“Mobile devices give us huge benefits in terms of work flexibility, but they also present us with musculoskeletal risks that previous generations never experienced. We need to focus on managing and reducing the physical strain and discomfort which mobile devices can place on us, so that we can benefit from them without risking long-term pain and injury.”
With the increase more generally in agile or flexible working patterns due to the nature of modern workflow, the 24/7 news agenda and access to work email and tools from wherever you are, the report also stresses the importance of organisations training employees to take mobile working seriously, when research shows many ignore postural advice.
And hands up, I confess, I am one of them.
Training our body into discomfort
Much of the health and safety information I can find pertains to helping staff not use their smartphones at work; to leave their mobile phones alone and help them avoid nomophobia (smartphone addiction and the need to constantly check for messages and notifications, or anxiety when without it).
Nomophobics beware: there are even mobile apps to stop you using mobile apps, like Forest.
But what about health and safety information for those who do use smartphones and all the productivity tools they offer, as part of their daily work?
This may or may not be an issue for those who use smartphones for work (or, indeed, anyone who uses a smartphone regularly) because other factors influence health here: posture when using a mobile phone and habits we get into which ‘train’ our body into discomfort.
For me, my terrible posture is exacerbated when I use a phone: I hunch over in a really ugly position — and I seem to tense up a little when I do this.
Alastair says I’ve trained my nervous system to accept this as normal behaviour so it’s repeated. I now find it difficult to relax completely: even when watching the TV my body is in a state of permanent tension, and I often wake up in the morning feeling like I’ve slept scrunched up in a ball.
For me, repeated trips to the osteopath to stretch me out, do clear the problem up. Until the next time.
As a physio, Alastair believes that exercises and treatment to ease symptoms can have the effect of allowing people to persist in the patterns that created the problem in the first place. He’s all about changing behaviour in order to effect permanent change.
“I could prescribe hundreds of different exercises but if you have to keep coming back to see me then I’m not doing my job.
“If I’m doing my job properly and you truly want to get better, you’ll come and see me for a series of sessions and then not necessarily have to see me again.”
Years ago, the occupational health team at work told me I’d have to stop using my mobile phone or, at least, drastically reduce the amount of time I spent on it.
They advised me to get one without access to email and apps so I could just use the phone function.
I remember thinking to myself: “That will never happen.”
But Alastair reminds me that my iPhone is not to blame: I am. My phone isn’t causing me pain and discomfort: I am. And I don’t need to stop using it to get better: I need to change the way I use it. And only I can do that.
In the meantime, Alastair can educate me on the how and why.
A state of stress
Alastair explains that there’s a link between our vision and our nervous system and physiology.
“When we take in our peripheral vision, we’re aware of our entire environment. When we put our head down to look in closer detail at something it activates our sympathetic nervous system which is our stress system, so one of the problems with phones is is puts us in a state of stress as we focus in on detail.
“When you ask someone to think about something, you’ll see them shift their balance onto one leg, push their shoulder forward, hand on the face, looking down. We’re in internal processing mode.
“Multitasking has been proven time and time again to be a complete illusion, we don’t multitask, we sequentially task, so when we have to think hard about something or focus on detail we shut down our physiology, we’re in a much less active posture.
“We’re in an age where people check social media constantly, checking new info, focussing in on the minutiae of what’s happening in people’s lives, losing the perspective of the bigger picture.
“If we have a more open perspective, lengthen our spine, open up the shoulders, your head comes up, the muscles relax and you’re now in a very different state of space. If we spend a lot of time on phones what happens is that our nervous system becomes predicated on that and it becomes our default system.
“What we need to do is remember to come in and out of the closed posture to avoid training your body to function in a particular way. It’s actually quick to train your body, it learns very quickly, but its an individual’s responsibility to do this.”
Dancing opens your posture completely, there’s music, people, a good atmosphere — it’s impossible to focus in on yourself and it is an excellent physical distraction from the way you’d hold yourself when editing a video on a mobile phone, for example.
If salsa dancing’s not for you, there are other ways to strike a balance. Alastair says we don’t have to hunch over and look at our phones for hours: we can open up our posture and hold our phones up and position ourselves in a more relaxed and open way. And we can alternate activities so as not to train our bodies into bad habits.
For me, for example, I can spend time editing a video on my iPhone, then walk across campus to interview an academic, then spend some time monitoring and posting content on Instagram, then sit in on a meeting.
Just as I organise my diary so I don’t have back-to-back meetings at opposite ends of campus, I can also organise my workflow so I’m not spending too much time on closed-posture activities.
And being aware of how I use mobile devices — thinking about open posture, trying not to tense up — I can train my body to retain these good habits and reduce the amount of stress I put it under.
Take a break, boost productivity
Alastair says taking breaks have been proven time and again, across a variety of professions, to enhance productivity.
Going for a walk at lunch time, he says, will increase your output during the afternoon, compared to working through your lunch break.
In fact, taking breaks boosts productivity, no matter what your profession.
“Recent data from productivity app DeskTime, which tracked people’s office habits, found that the employees with the highest productivity took 17-minute breaks for every 52 minutes of work – and they did not spend that break time checking social media or replying to emails.”
And Florida State University Professor K. Anders Ericsson, in his research into elite performers across a variety of disciplines from musicians to athletes says breaks every 90 minutes made a positive impact on performance.
My smartphone is here to stay
I’m not sure salsa dancing in the office will catch on, and as much as I like a ‘cracking’ good session with the osteopath it’s reassuring to know that making positive, permanent changes means I can enjoy a happy, healthy and long relationship with my mobile phone.
The advice I received seven or so years ago — to ditch the mobile phone — was neither practical nor necessary. If you’re also suffering in a similar way — or even if you’re not but you do use your mobile phone a lot (and you certainly will if you’re running an Instagram account — then think about the way you use it.
Robyn Bateman is a student on the MA in Online Journalism (now the MA in Multiplatform and Mobile Journalism) at Birmingham City University