Smartphones: A threat to well-being?

Nowadays, smartphones appear to play an inevitable role both in our work and private life. However, when it comes to work-related use, smartphones can hamper recovery and thus, pose a threat to our well-being. In this blog-post, I review recent studies on how and when potential side-effects may occur.

Do you remember the time when you still possessed one of these old-fashioned mobile phones? Yes, I mean those without any 3G or 4G networks or any additional fancy add-ons transforming your phone into a small computer. If we compare these days with the present, we may conclude that smartphones have substantially changed our lives. We can travel wherever we want and still find our way to our hotel or to a nice café. Also, we can easily take photos of special moments and share them immediately with our friends and families. These benefits are also apparent in working life. With the smartphone’s portability and its access to the Internet, we can work wherever and whenever we want as long as we meet our deadlines. Being available always and everywhere has offered many employees not only more flexibility but also a sense of autonomy that our grandparents could only have dreamed off.

On first sight, it appears that smartphones produce exclusively positive effects (who would not dream of being able to schedule one’s work to his or her personal needs?) but if so, why do companies such as Volkswagen and Telekom take preventive measures to make sure that employees do not continue working beyond the regular working-hours?

Each individual possesses a limited amount of energy resources – resources that can be deployed for a wide range of cognitive, behavioral and physiological activities. Any activity – regardless of ease or difficulty – requires not only a certain amount but also task specific resources which, once invested, will subsequently decrease available resources for similar tasks. Depending on the task at hand, more cognitive or physical demanding activities will ask for more resources and thereby increase the likelihood that existing resources will be drained sooner (Meijman & Mudler, 1998). Additionally, given the fact that work-related activities are resource-specific, it is likely that some resourc¬es will be spent more rapidly than others. To make this description a little bit more concrete, think about a recent day when you have had tons of work. If you ever reached the point that you could no longer remember the words you have read seconds ago, this is the most obvious sign for lacking sufficient resources or that your resources already have been depleted.

Fortunately, while resources are limited, they can be reinstated or rebuilt during a process known as recovery (Zijlstra & Sonnentag, 2006). People differ in what they regard as recovering (Sonnentag & Fritz, 2007) – for instance, some people simply will take a nap, others will watch a TV series and some will seek “recovery” while freeriding their mountain bike somewhere in the woods. Despite the fact that recovery activities are inherently different, all share the potential to restore previously lost resources and thus allow you and others to tackle new challenges. Successful recovery requires that the resource-demanding task has come to a halt (Meijman & Mudler, 1998). This can be both physically, such as when you leave your workplace (Etzion, Eden, & Lapidot, 1998) and cognitively, when you simply stop thinking about your work during off-job time, also known as psychological detachment (Sonnentag, 2012).

But how does this information relate to smartphones? Psychological detachment from work has been shown to be an important precursor or condition for successful recovery and positive well-being (e.g. Sonnentag, 2012). At the same time, being able to detach from work is often easier said than done, as this process is particularly susceptible to external factors (Sonnentag & Bayer, 2005). Amongst others, smartphone use for work-related purposes outside regular working time appears to be one of them.

By compulsively checking e-mails or accepting calls with the phone despite having left the office, you remain occupied with your work instead of detaching from it. For instance, Derks, ten Brummelhuis, Zecic, and Bakker (2014) conducted a diary study over a couple of days asking participants to report their smartphone use (amongst other measures of interest). Their findings showed that when employees face difficulties with bridging their work and private life, those who continue using their phone for work-related purposes fail to detach mentally from work. In another diary study by Derks and Bakker (2012), intensive work-related smartphone use actually increased experience of work-life conflicts when the person failed to detach or relax from work. However, when the person succeeded in recovery-related activities, experiences of work-life conflicts decreased more for intensive users. Another important finding of this study was that experiences of conflicts between work and private life had a negative impact on the person’s well-being with stronger effects for intensive smartphone users. In other words, intensive smartphone use can have far reaching consequences for the person’s life but at the same time, if such a person manages to leave work behind, negative effects can be reversed.

Based on these findings, should you now simply dump your smartphone and go back to a Stone Age phone? Arguably, smartphones can have far reaching consequences on your well-being but they do not need to. In the end, you can still decide for yourself whether you want to be available beyond regular working hours or not. For instance, Park, Fritz, and Jex (2011) revealed that employees who refrain from work-related use of technological devices beyond regular working-hours are most apt at detaching from work. That is, if you belong to the group of people who, like Parker’s participants, value strict borders between private and working life, you should not be worried.

But what about companies such as Volkswagen and Telekom – do they really help employees with their measures? This is a particularly tough question, as research remains scarce on this issue. Initial findings, however, highlight that organizations do play an important role. More specifically, organizations with stricter borders between work and private life can actually strengthen or weaken the relationship between smartphone use and psychological detachment in different ways (Derks, van Mierlo, & Schmitz, 2014).

In summary, thanks to smartphones we are more autonomous than ever, but at the same time it is important to use these small devices in ways that promote rather than impair our well-being. Certainly, there are some situations when you really need to reach a person - as when you realize your project has gone completely wrong. Still, these situations are not the routine and probably only occur once in a while. As such, you can still leave an emergency phone number but aside from them, it makes more sense to turn off your work-related smartphone once you leave your workplace.


Derks, D., & Bakker, A. B. (2012). Smartphone Use, Work-Home Interference, and Burnout: A Diary Study on the Role of Recovery. Applied Psychology, 63(3), 411–440. doi:10.1111/j.1464-0597.2012.00530.x

Derks, D., ten Brummelhuis, L. L., Zecic, D., & Bakker, A. B. (2014). Switching on and off … : Does smartphone use obstruct the possibility to engage in recovery activities? European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 23(1), 80–90. doi:10.1080/1359432X.2012.711013

Derks, D., van Mierlo, H., & Schmitz, E. B. (2014). A diary study on work-related smartphone use, psychological detachment and exhaustion: Examining the role of the perceived segmentation norm. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 19(1), 74–84.

Etzion, D., Eden, D., & Lapidot, Y. (1998). Relief From Job Stressors and Burnout: Reserve Service as a Respite. Journal of Applied Psychology, 83(4), 577–585.

Kostenko, M. (n.d.). Close up of man using mobile smartphone. [Digital Image] Retrieved from

Meijman, T. F., & Mulder, G. (1998). Psychological aspects of workload. In C. de Wolff, P. J. D. Drenth, & H. Henk (Eds.), A Handbook of Work and Organizational Psychology: Volume 2 (p. 320). East Sussex: Psychology Press.

Park, Y., Fritz, C., & Jex, S. M. (2011). Relationships between work-home segmentation and psychological detachment from work: The role of communication technology use at home. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 16(4), 457–467.

Sonnentag, S. (2012). Psychological Detachment From Work During Leisure Time: The Benefits of Mentally Disengaging From Work. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(2), 114–118. doi:10.1177/0963721411434979

Sonnentag, S., & Bayer, U.-V. (2005). Switching off mentally: predictors and consequences of psychological detachment from work during off-job time. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 10(4), 393–414. doi:10.1037/1076-8998.10.4.393

Sonnentag, S., & Fritz, C. (2007). The recovery experience questionnaire: Development and validation of a measure. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 12(3), 204–221.

Zijlstra, F. R. H., & Sonnentag, S. (2006). After work is done: Psychological perspectives on recovery from work. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 15(2), 129–138. doi:10.1080/13594320500513855