Phone or career? It's your call.

Smartphones and tablets are the enemy of a good night's sleep.

An obsessive-compulsive use of smartphones has become a big problem in Asia.

These days a smartphone can dig up information on almost anything, but one function you won’t find in the settings menu is whether it’s killing your career.

Years ago, Apple supremo Steve Jobs flew in rock legend Lou Reed to entertain his key executives at a conference in San Francisco, but when Reed took to the stage, hardly anyone looked up from their iPhones. An infuriated Reed cranked the sound to a dangerous level, but to no effect. Exasperated, the ailing Jobs led by example and started strutting across the floor alone. That did get everyone’s attention, with all handsets duly put away. Jobs remarked later: “People sometimes need to be shown that it’s OK to turn off.”

But with Jobs (and now Reed) gone, it seems his message is forgotten. Smartphones in western markets seem to border on an obsession, with some calling them the death of manners and conversation. In parts of Asia, excessive usage is now recognised as a bona-fide addiction., a well-known recruitment website in China, recently interviewed over 10,000 white-collar workers from 28 mainland cities on their mobile phone usage. A staggering 80 per cent admitted a severe addiction to their phone. Just over 79 per cent said they kept their handset on during the night; 60 per cent indicated that they cut down face-to-face communication; 69 per cent that they grab their phone first thing after waking; and 64 per cent that they use it before going to sleep. On average, they’re glued to their screens four hours a day.

It’s a similar story in Hong Kong, with the Hong Kong Research Association reporting that 53 per cent of 1100 residents it sampled were afraid of being separated from their smartphone and suffer acute anxiety if they are – a key symptom of withdrawal.

In South Korea, smartphone (and internet) addiction has become so rampant that policymakers have decided to act by implementing various treatment and prevention measures. The Health and Welfare Ministry plans to provide health insurance coverage to obsessive-compulsives, equating the problem to tobacco and alcohol addictions. It’s also instituting programs to provide accessible and affordable treatment for smartphone addicts.

Generally speaking, such people are described as wanting to be in constant communication with others, even when there is no absolute need. And employers have had enough of them. Arriving at work every day bleary-eyed and disengaged is not only impacting the personal careers of the “afflicted”, but the productivity of the companies employing them. Government treatment programs may help long-term, but employers are feeling the pinch on their bottom line right now.

Some, largely unconstrained by strict privacy regulations, are demanding to sight job applicants’ mobile phone records before hiring. Others have taken an iron-fist approach and banned the use of personal handsets during office hours – a largely counter-productive measure given few want to work in such an environment. Besides, trying to coerce employees into focusing on what they’re supposed to be doing is pointless if they’re not getting enough sleep.

"I think it’s a non-issue clouded in hyperbole." – Brody Sully

Right before bedtime, bright lights are the enemy, inhibiting the production of melatonin, which helps you fall – and stay – asleep. Because smartphones (and tablets) are so bright and close to your face, their impact is similar to being in a fairly well-lit room.

According to researchers, the problems caused compound over time, so the more you use your phone at night to email, SMS,  watch movies, read books or whatever – the worse your sleep deprivation becomes. Not enough sleep, it’s long been known, is a major factor in low productivity at work.

But Brody Sully, a human resources manager at a Bangkok bank, isn’t buying any of this.

“Frankly, I think it’s a non-issue clouded in hyperbole,” he says. “Everyone [at the bank] is 100 per cent tuned in to what they’re doing. If they’re not, they’re out the door. I can’t really speak to what is or isn’t going on in other sectors, but how could tellers, loan managers or investment advisors be looking at Facebook all day?

“There’s no denying people are using their phones more these days – I’ve read the average user checks his or hers 35 times a day for about 30 seconds each time – but are they letting it jeopardise their career? I don’t see it in the finance sector, or professional services in general, but maybe in jobs or industries where they’re bored anyway. I mean, I know it’s an off-beat analogy, but it used to be a farang [westerner] couldn’t take a step through a Red Light district here without hearing ‘Hey, handsome!’

Now no-one even looks up. Smartphones are consuming the oldest profession in the world!”

Sully is spot-on to the extent that as incomes across Southeast Asia rise, consumers are fuelling an exponential growth in smartphone use as they upgrade from basic handsets. At the end of the last financial year, they forked out almost US$3.4 billion more on smartphones than they did the year before. One in every three mobile phones sold in the region is now a smartphone.

It’s a fact not lost on Tassapon Bijleveld, chief executive of Thai Air Asia (TAA), who has just announced that TAA and other top player Nok Air are working to make broadband connectivity available on all their flights in the next few months.

“It’s the fifth essential of life people can’t live without,” Bijleveld said in a formal statement. That may be true, but at what cost?

Are you at risk?

If you answer yes to more than half the following questions, some experts believe you may be addicted to your phone.

  • Do you feel distracted if you’re without your phone?
  • Do you become anxious if your phone hasn’t rung for a while?
  • Is your phone on 24/7?
  • Do you become uneasy or annoyed if your phone cannot receive Wi-Fi or is out of service?
  • Do you frequently mistake calls to other phones as a call to yours?
  • Does using your phone lift your mood?
  • Do you constantly check your phone at work and in social situations?

December 2021
December 2021

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