We are the distracted generations, wasting hours a day checking irrelevant emails and intrusive social media accounts.
And this “always on” culture – exacerbated by the smartphone – is actually making us more stressed and less productive, according to some reports.
“Something like 40% of people wake up, and the first thing they do is check their email,” says Professor Sir Cary Cooper of Manchester Business School, who has studied e-mail and workplace stress.
“For another 40%, it’s the last thing they do at night.”
The Quality of Working Life 2016 report from the Chartered Management Institute earlier this year found that this obsession with checking emails outside of work hours is making it difficult for many of us to switch off.
And this is increasing our stress levels.
So what can we do about it?
The more enlightened firms have been stepping in to help. In 2012, Volkswagen began shutting off employees’ email when they are off shift.
Daimler has allowed its workers to have all the work emails they receive while on holiday automatically erased. And France’s new labour law, enacted a few weeks ago, encourages all companies to take similar measures.
Dave Coplin, Microsoft UK’s chief envisioning officer, believes artificial intelligence tools will learn when we are busy and block alerts, waiting until we’re less busy before bringing us the most relevant or interesting messages.
“The idea is to develop tools that help us knife and fork our way through deluges of information,” he says.
Much of Microsoft’s work centres on its personal assistant, Cortana.
Other firms are experimenting with social media-style messaging in an attempt to escape the tyranny of email.
Some tech firms believe monitoring our computer behaviour is a first step in seizing back control of our work-life balance.
Robby Macdonell from Nashville Tennessee, founded tech start-up RescueTime because he was so frustrated not knowing where his days were going. He was being distracted too easily.
“These alerts are very well designed to capture your attention and stimulate the parts of your brain that say, ‘I have to react to this right now’,” he says.
He developed a program to monitor how much time we spend on each application and give users the ability to block certain programs for set periods of time.
Similarly, Dajia Zhu from Hangzhou in eastern China, wrote the StayFocused app to help himself and others be honest about how much time they were devoting to work tasks, as opposed to web browsing or messing about on social media.
“I started to write the app since I needed to overcome my procrastination,” he says.
And if you find working in an open-plan office distracting, you can always try ChatterBlocker, an app that plays sounds to neutralise office ambient noise.
“Personally, I’m easily distracted if other people are talking while I’m trying to focus,” says the app’s developer, Earl Vickers.
Sweating the small stuff
Wearable technology offers another way to help us manage our stress at work, according to some people.
Since January, Professor Michael Segalla has offered an iHealth activity and cardiac tracker to every MBA student at the HEC Paris management school.
The gadgets gather data every 10 minutes from each student – heart rate, blood oxygen levels, sleeping patterns – which can then be viewed on a dashboard.
Along with the biometric data, students are being asked online how stressed and happy they feel. The idea is to see how perceived wellbeing and biotracking data affect academic performance.
“It is a sad fact that firms are probably spending more money on monitoring the physical state of machines than they are on monitoring the physical health and wellbeing of employees,” says Prof Segalla.
He admits that making this type of physical information available to instructors and supervisors is an invasion of privacy. But he says in the era of Google, Bing, and social networks, “privacy is virtually gone” anyway.
In a similar vein, Irish start-up Galvanic has come up with Pip, a small, white device that measures skin perspiration – an indicator of stress according to many researchers.
A tiny electric current passed along your skin varies depending on your levels of perspiration. So if Pip detects an increase in sweaty-palmed stress levels, you can connect it wirelessly to your smartphone and play a short game. To win, you have to relax.
The idea is that by learning to relax, you’ll be able to do so more quickly in future.
Biofeedback devices like these give people “a window into their physical response to stress, helping them learn to control it,” says Ian Robertson, professor of psychology at Trinity College Dublin and chair of Pip’s scientific advisory board.
All in the mind
In the US, “mindfulness” is all the rage as a way of coping with our stressful digital world.
Google, Target, and the Marine Corps have all recently introduced meditation sessions in the workplace. Insurer Aetna found that just an hour a week of such activity reduced employees’ stress levels by a third – and their healthcare costs by $2,000 (£1,400) a year.
And the technology causing us all this “always on” grief – the smartphone – can be used effectively to deliver such courses, says Michael Acton Smith, co-founder of Calm.com, a meditation course provider.
“The irony wasn’t lost on us,” he says.
The man behind the Moshi Monsters kids game says his seven-day mindfulness course, created with San Francisco-based practitioner, Tamara Levitt, now has five million users.
He hopes we’ll use our smartphones in queues or on public transport to practise breathing and concentration techniques, rather than checking emails and social media.
Perhaps we just have to learn to switch the damned things off.