Two tragic cases in the news this week have been linked to workers who were on their cell phones while on the clock. The death of an autistic man left in a sweltering van in Bucks County and a fatal Duck Boat accident on the Delaware River last summer have both been tied to inattentive workers who made dozens of phone calls or text messages while on duty.
The dangers of calling and text messaging while driving are well-known, but less attention is paid to how multitasking affects us while we perform more mundane tasks. Pedestrians are more likely to walk into crosswalks if they are chatting on their phones, and emergency room doctors have seen so many injuries related to talking and walking they have issued warnings about it.
So why can’t we do something as simple as talk and walk at the same time? According to Ira Hyman, a psychology professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., human brains cannot truly multitask. When we tackle any two tasks, we are really quickly switching back and forth between the two. Cell phones, Hyman said, are good at hogging all the attention.
In an experiment, Hyman and his students tested whether students on his campus noticed a clown on a unicycle riding around the square. Three-quarters of students who were talking on cell phones walked right past the clown, without noticing anything unusual.
“Then they turn around and look back and (are) surprised that they could have missed it,” Hyman said. “You’re missing things and you’re not aware that you’re missing it. You think you’re doing just fine.”
Talking on cell phones distracts us more than talking to someone in person. Hyman said that might be because it is harder to understand someone talking over a fuzzy landline, without non-verbal clues. Or it could be because phone conversations compel us to visualize who we are talking to, taking us out of our present location. That can be dangerous while crossing the street, watching kids, or doing other everyday tasks. It can also cut down on productivity and safety at work.
Alex Godun, an adjunct professor of human resources at Temple University’s Fox School of Business, called cell phone usage policies at work a “hot topic” over the past few years. He said more than targeting personal calls, companies have restricted cell phone use at work to cut down on people checking Facebook, Twitter and their personal e-mail on company time.
In his experience, he said, those restrictions haven’t been too effective.
“The lure of instant and constant communications with our friends and family is really too much for most people, no matter how professional,” Godun said.
Godun says it is hard for managers to strike a balance between respecting workers’ privacy and monitoring personal phone use effectively.