Work life balance being hurt by online surfing

People are spending larger and larger amounts of their spare time online rather than on traditional leisure activities, reveals a new survey.

Online insurance company Swiftcover says it found that 43 per cent of British people questioned are so obsessed with technology that they can't switch off their computer out of work hours.

However, some experts are warning that this phenomenon, coupled with mobile technology that keeps people on call in and out of the office, is leading to an 'always on' culture and an unhealthy work/life balance.

Swiftcover says that our 'technology obsessed generation' is using leisure time for communicating with family and friends digitally on social networking on sites like Facebook and YouTube rather than meeting up face to face. Fewer of us, it says, are using the added free time that more efficient technology gives us on activities like reading, watching TV, sleeping or relaxing.

"So many tasks and activities can be done online now, from shopping and managing our finances, to keeping in touch with friends and pure entertainment," said Craig Staniland, director of underwriting at Swiftcover. "It's no wonder so many of us spend our spare time online."

Many employers, it seems, are now benefiting from people's willingness to spend previously free time online.

"If you consider travelling into London from Bracknell for a customer meeting, this would take around four hours out of your day, assuming one hour of productive time for the meeting itself," says Alastair Buck, director of voice with business ISP Viatel. "More and companies are looking to 'use' the rest of this time productively."

He says VoIP is one of the tools that extend the office to wherever the employee is, through 'virtual' softphones for example, often, he believes, with benefits for both parties.

James McCarthy, marketing manager with Microsoft's Windows Mobile division, believes that, used correctly, technology is about liberating people, not ensnaring them behind a screen. More of us, he says, are taking willing advantage of the added reach of today's technology to work remotely: "Clearly the desire to work remotely is there," he said. "We believe that mobile working is all about having more control over your day and at last more freedom in your life. Ultimately, work should not be a place you go, but a thing you do."

But there are dangers from computer use that extends to all hours, says psychologist Professor Graham Jones of performance development consultancy Lane4. "Today's mobile manager is never 'away from his desk' and whether it's an evening, a weekend or even a holiday abroad with the family," he said. "But it's certainly not healthy. The time has come to distinguish some sensible working practices so that, not only are managers able to take time out without disturbance, but those who work under them realise the importance of team work."