How Does Smartphone Use Impact the Workplace?


In his new book, The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness, social scientist Jonathan Haidt argues that growing up with smartphones has had a devastating impact on Gen Z. It has spiked levels of anxiety and depression. It has increased feelings of loneliness and friendlessness. It has made people more risk averse and led to global educational declines in maths, reading and science [1].

He makes the case for banning the use of smartphones in schools and not permitting social media use before the age of sixteen.

But it’s not just teenagers who are hooked on their smartphones. In a 2022 Gallup poll, nearly 60% of Americans said they used their phones too often [2]. Meanwhile, people in Ireland spend an average of 4.5 hours on their phone a day [3]. Only 10% of that time is spent talking to someone in a phone conversation. The rest is given over to scrolling.

A lot of that scrolling takes place at work.

Smartphones in the workplace

A recent survey by Screen Education showed that employees waste, on average, more than two hours per work day using their phones. The average person checks their phone 150 times a day, with studies showing that the mere presence of a smartphone reduces our cognitive ability by taking attention away from other tasks [4].

A great deal has been written about how technology has brought the workplace into our personal lives. But an underrated topic of discussion is how it has also brought our personal lives into the workplace. For example, a recent Qualtrics and Google study found that 29% of employees say it is difficult to resist checking personal notifications while at work [5]. A lot of those personal interactions take place on phones.

The same study found that 80% of consumers use only one phone, and about half use that phone for both their personal and work life [6]. It’s hardly a surprise that people are struggling to separate the professional from the personal when they use the same device to govern both. It’s especially unsurprising given we are growing evermore reliant on our smartphones for work activity.

A recent survey on behalf of Samsung Ireland by Opinion Matters found that almost 70% of Irish people rely on their smartphone for work [7]. Almost a third said they needed their phone in order to be productive.

Unsurprisingly, given Haidt’s findings, this level of phone use is especially pronounced amongst young people. 76% of millennials were found to rely on their phones to do their jobs, with 26% saying they checked on their devices “consistently” [8].

Almost half the respondents said they would be lost without their devices. This points to a core issue regarding smartphones: their addictive nature.

Addictive symptoms and no flow

In their article ‘Smartphone addiction, daily interruptions and self-reported productivity’, Duke and Montag write that: “Though not an official diagnosis, several researchers have demonstrated how classic addiction symptomology may be applicable in the context of smartphone overuse, including loss of control (e.g. distortion of time spent on the phone), preoccupation with the smartphone, withdrawal symptoms and negative effects on our social and work lives.” [9]

The fidgety, compulsive aspect of our relationship with our phone is a problem not just because of the time spent on our phone. It also affects how we’re working when not on our phone, preventing us from achieving a “flow” state.

Flow, as coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book of the same name, refers to a state in which we are fully absorbed by an activity, forgetting about space and time, whilst being very productive. It’s that feeling of disappearing into an activity and re-emerging some time later, surprised to learn how much time has passed.

Even small interruptions have been shown to take one out of a flow state. Interruptions as brief as 2.8 seconds were found to disrupt participants’ flow of concentration and lead to increased errors on a sequence-based cognitive task [10]. Meanwhile, it’s been shown that it takes an average of 23 minutes to get back to a task after experiencing an interruption [11]. Checking your phone or simply seeing it flash or vibrate can be enough to ruin a moment of focus. What Duke and Montag term the “checking habit” is so ingrained in many of us that even without receiving a message we will feel an impulse to reach for our device. This is especially true if it’s in sight. The presence of a phone has been found to distract us even if the phone is turned off [12].

Participants in Duke and Montag’s research admitted to spending more time on their smartphone while at work than they felt was optimal [13]. In other words, they were aware of the negative effects but continued all the same. It’s a relatable shortcoming, and yet another similarity between the addict mindset and that of the average smartphone user. Worse still, research has shown that much of our phone checking is done unconsciously and that there is a significant gap between how much we think we’re checking our phone and how much we really are [14].

Put more simply: We know our smartphone use is negatively affecting us. We think we use our phones too much. We are actually using them even more than we think.

Smartphones are the ultimate office distraction –– which is why they are a problem for employers. The average employee loses 720 work hours due to distraction every year [15]. Those lost hours are felt in profits. As such, it’s no surprise that businesses have tried to fix the problem.

Battling the smartphone

As with Haidt’s recommendations for schools, some businesses have attempted to ban the use of smartphones in the workplace. Amazon warehouse employees were required to leave their phones at home or in their vehicle before stepping inside the premises, although that ban has subsequently been revoked [16]. Meanwhile, a 2022 report noted that one-fifth of companies based in Berlin implemented some form of smartphone ban [17].

In some workplaces, phones are banned not for reasons of productivity but security. Having some form of ban in place is common practice in data centres, manufacturing plants, research and development labs, and executive conference rooms. This is to prevent potential corporate espionage by way of the remote hijacking of smartphone cameras and microphones. Not all of these bans will be hard bans –– i.e. regulation against bringing them into the premises. Some will be as simple as signs prohibiting use in certain areas, with other designated use areas available.

The problem with an outright ban on phones in the workplace is that, unlike with children in schools, employees are grown adults capable of making their own choices. Many would baulk at an employer trying to dictate whether or not they could use their phone at work, seeing it as draconian overreach.

On top of that, evidence suggests bans don’t work. In fact, they can make the situation worse.

The case for phones

In their study in the journal Internet Research, Whelan and Turel found that the revoking of a smartphone ban made no impact on employee productivity. However, employees who were banned from using their phone at work suffered increased stress and greater levels of work-life conflict [18].

This is backed up by the findings of a new study conducted by the University of Galway and the University of Melbourne [19]. It found that personal use of smartphones in the workplace can reduce stress and help employees achieve a better work/life balance. It also found moderate mobile phone usage to have no discernible impact on employee performance.

Employees who were able to use their phone reported being able to help with family issues during the day, helping to reduce pressure on their partner. The ability to handle their personal communications throughout the day also meant that they were not inundated with a day’s worth of messages the second they left work and so could avoid being suddenly overwhelmed.

Writing in Forbes, Tali Rapaport, co-founder of employer branding and candidate engagement platform Puck, argues that rather than trying to reduce employees’ time on phones, employers should be trying to find ways to introduce mobile-friendly communication practices. “If employers want an engaged pool of candidates and existing employees,” she writes, “they need to meet them where they’re at –– on their phones.” [20]

She goes on to argue that with staff shortages a growing problem, and the retention of quality talent a priority for most businesses, it is essential that companies take steps to move towards employee ideals. “The companies that act now to implement mobile-friendly communication practices will be better able to address staffing shortages with quality talent and reduce attrition of talented employees. A company that doesn’t communicate in a way that resonates well with the workforce will fall behind a competitor that does.”

Other solutions

There’s no one right answer to managing our relationships with smartphones, be it in the office or in our personal lives. Some common solutions are to take one night a week away from technology, as advocated by Laura Mae Martin, Google’s executive productivity adviser [21]. If that’s not possible, maybe try to set 15-minute phone-free breaks in your day. You could take a walk or go to grab a coffee without it. “Anything you can do to create an environment that makes it as easy as possible to distance yourself from the phone will be helpful,” said James A. Roberts, an expert on consumer behaviour at Baylor University and author of ‘Too Much of a Good Thing: Are You Addicted to Your Smartphone?’ [22]

Mindfulness has also been shown to help. Practising meditation improves impulse control and executive function, as well as helping to counter shrinking attention spans. Developing greater awareness can help reign in bad habits [23]. As suggests Richard J. Davidson, founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison: “When you become aware of the urge [to grab your phone], simply ask yourself, ‘Do I really need to do this right now?’” [24]

70% of employees say they would prefer greater separation between their work and personal life on their phones [25]. That would suggest that whatever we’re doing currently isn’t working.

In an article in The Atlantic, Haidt includes a quote from ‘Walden’, Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 reflection on simple living. “The cost of a thing is the amount of…life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”

The data would suggest that we’re currently exchanging too much of our lives –– at work and at home –– for time on our phone. It could have a significant cost.

More on Productivity

How to focus and become indistractable with Nir Eyal – Podcast

Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time

How Much Should You be Working?

More on Mindfulness

Mindfulness in the workplace

Mindfulness, Meditation and Compassion in the Workplace and in Life with Scott Shute – Podcast

Schopenhauer and the Workplace










[9] Duke É, Montag C. Smartphone addiction, daily interruptions and self-reported productivity. Addict Behav Rep. 2017 Jul 19;6:90-95. doi: 10.1016/j.abrep.2017.07.002. PMID: 29450241; PMCID: PMC5800562.

[10] Duke É, Montag C. Smartphone addiction, daily interruptions and self-reported productivity. Addict Behav Rep. 2017 Jul 19;6:90-95. doi: 10.1016/j.abrep.2017.07.002. PMID: 29450241; PMCID: PMC5800562.



[13] Duke É, Montag C. Smartphone addiction, daily interruptions and self-reported productivity. Addict Behav Rep. 2017 Jul 19;6:90-95. doi: 10.1016/j.abrep.2017.07.002. PMID: 29450241; PMCID: PMC5800562.

[14] Duke É, Montag C. Smartphone addiction, daily interruptions and self-reported productivity. Addict Behav Rep. 2017 Jul 19;6:90-95. doi: 10.1016/j.abrep.2017.07.002. PMID: 29450241; PMCID: PMC5800562.