All work and no smartphone play will dull your employees

Your colleagues benefit from online diversions such as electronic games and social media interactions—in moderation, of course—according to a new study.

When employees use their smartphone at work to play a quick game, browse the Web or check on personal email, it improves their well-being, according to a new study from Kansas State University.

Researchers found that allowing workers short respites to play on their phones throughout the day creates a net benefit.

“A smartphone micro-break can be beneficial for both the employee and the organization,” said study author Sooyel Kim, a doctoral student at Kansas State. “For example, if I would play a game for an hour during my working hours, it would definitely hurt my work performance. But if I take short breaks of one or two minutes throughout the day, it could provide me with refreshment to do my job.”

Mindless or mindful?

Kim’s thesis follows the well-documented effect of short breaks throughout the workday increasing the mental focus of employees.

In the KSU study, Kim and her researchers were curious as to whether seemingly “mindless” tasks such as playing Angry Birds or checking Facebook yielded the same results.

Kim and her team privately and securely measured the smartphone use of 72 full-time employees. At the end of each day, participants reported on their well-being. They found that, on average, employees spend about 22 minutes on their phones per eight-hour shift, and all things considered, it’s time well spent.

Being entertained by our phones (in good measure) is more than just a mindless distraction. Video games, for instance, have been shown to improve cognitive function, reduce impulsiveness and give a boost to fundamental on-the-job skills such as memory, attention and decision-making. Some video games have proven themselves more effective at improving mental agility than specialized brain-training programs such as Luminosity.

Important connections

Social media is a way to virtually connect with friends and family, and that is its primary benefit when browsed at the workplace, according to Kim and her researchers. Many smartphone games require social interaction as well.

“By interacting with friends or family members through a smartphone or by playing a short game, we found that employees can recover from some of their stress to refresh their minds and take a break,” Kim said.

Although smartphone breaks are similar to the other kinds of micro-breaks an employee takes throughout the day, Kim specializes in studying which kind of micro-breaks are the most effective, and stresses that organizations should not judge on-the-job smartphone use too quickly:

These days, people struggle with a lot of different types of stressors, such as work demands, time scheduling, family issues or personal life issues. We need to understand how we can help people recover and cope with stressors. Smartphones might help and that is really important not only for individuals, but for an organization, too.”

Why not let them play?

Though you don’t want employees to become phone zombies at work, 64 percent of people in the U.S. own a smartphone, and for many it’s their key entry point to the online world.

Taking a quick pit stop to do something fun and mentally stimulating—such as playing a few rounds of Words with Friends on the side with co-workers or making a post on social media—could be just the restorative break your employees need.

A version of this article originally appeared on the Michael C. Fina blog.

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