Internet surfing: Kicking the habit

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Addictive behaviour need not only belong to the realms of drugs, alcohol and smoking indeed internet surfing is becoming a very real problem for employers who should look out for the signs of this productivity brain-drain.

The ICAS National Support Centre (NSC) in the UK is currently recording a sharp increase in the number of employees facing disciplinary action because of their internet behaviour. Local magistrates have also noted a growing number of internet pornography cases being referred to at the higher court; however these instances are now acknowledged to be only the tip of the iceberg.

Far more important are the fundamental changes in employee behaviour which have been identified in many studies over the last few years. These studies are pointing to the way in which the internet triggers a wide range of negative employee behaviours.

The two main behaviours demonstrated are the more unguarded style of communication which the internet induces (disinhibition), and the compulsive attraction of its ever-present nature, with which many individuals reach the point of addiction. Both of these present significant dangers to an organisation which are often ignored or go unrecognised.

There are extensive statistics available in numerous reports from the UK and the US. They vary from studies that show an average private use of the internet during working hours of 3.5 hours per week, (double that according to some managers) to a survey by www.vault.com indicating that 31% of employees said they surfed the internet constantly while at work. All studies show considerably greater misuse of internet facilities than had previously been suspected.

ICAS’ own behavioural risk management services are currently compiling research on addictive behaviours associated with the misuse of the internet, instant messaging, emails and mobile phone usage.

Meanwhile, companies can combat this problem by learning to recognise the signs, and to implement emerging best practice.

How to recognise addictive behaviour:
1. Addictive behaviour is usually kept hidden, and may even be out of the individual’s own awareness, while politeness often persuades others to turn a blind eye. Managers need to be more alert to how desktop computers with internet access are actually being used.

2. Individuals with any form of addictive behaviour are likely to be in denial. The signs of an addiction may be subtle, as they are with many forms of ‘dishonesty’. Individuals who go to great lengths to shelter their screen from others’ eyes are immediately suspicious.

3. Internet behaviour distorts time-frames, either because of a tendency to stay longer than intended online, or because surfers develop connections (cyber friends or action game contestants, gambling and shopping sites) outside their own time zones. Watch for people who consistently stay late at the office, or arrive late, or who have become chronically tired.

What can bosses do?
1. The chances are high that in virtually every organisation some employees are giving poor service as a result of their internet practices, at considerable cost to the business. Decide whether the topic is worth pursuing.

2. Be prepared to offer and pay for individual support to the same extent you would offer support and rehabilitation to valued staff with an alcohol or substance abuse problem.

3. If you do decide to pursue a course of action, there are obvious and well tried remedies. Publish and enforce a balanced policy – if you haven't done this recently, the chances are that it is out of date. Use whatever pop-up blocking software is appropriate and train your managers.

Michael Reddy is Chairman of ICAS

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