Nearly one fifth of us checks email before getting out of bed. Why? Photo: Shutterstock

Wednesday 25th May 2016

Pillow talk

Who checks email before they get out of bed?

Time was when you couldn’t actually do very much before getting out of bed. You could probably scratch, yawn or have a nice stretch. You could lean over and switch on Simon Mayo or grab a remote to see what Frank and Selina had to say on Breakfast Time. But work? Not much.

Of course, things have changed in recent years. Many of us now sleep with our smartphones. (No jokes at the back, please.) We can virtually go anywhere, see anything or contact anyone before even thinking about pouring milk on our Cornflakes.

And of course, this means a big change to working patterns. According to a recent survey by TG Escapes – an outdoor eco-office retailer – one fifth of the UK workforce admits to checking their emails before they get out of bed in the mornings. Additionally, the national poll of 1,000 adults revealed that nearly half of us (47.5%) check our emails before we get to work.

Nearly half of the people who check emails in bed are aged 18 to 34. Those who are happy to relax, maybe have a coffee and wait until they get into the office to check their emails are in the minority: only 18.8% of employees do this, the majority of whom are aged 45 to 65.

Richard Harvey, Managing Director of TG Escapes, says, ‘These advances in technology and our ability to keep in touch with the office from our homes mean that, theoretically, most of us could save ourselves the commute and just work from home.’ (Richard wants to build an office in your garden, remember.)

National variations

Perhaps. But there are also interesting discrepancies between countries. In Northern Ireland, 28.2% of people apparently check their emails before getting out of bed, whereas in Wales the figure is as low as 8%. (Scotland and England are both pretty middling, on 19.4% and 18.4% respectively.)

Not checking: Tom Jones

Why the big difference between Northern Ireland and Wales? Median gross weekly earnings in Northern Ireland are £383, but £473 in Wales, so it’s unlikely to be to do with seniority of job roles. Maybe the Welsh just have better things to do in bed.

Anyway, this is a global thing. A 2012 CISCO connected world technology report identified that in India, 96% of young people wake up with their smartphone. 90% of them use their smartphone first thing in the morning, often before they get out of bed. (And yes, this was four years ago, so chances are the figures are even more drastic now.)

So why? John Piper, writing on the niche website Desiring God, considers why people are so into smartphones first thing in the morning. As he suggests, it’s not just about work – there are plenty of other forces in play.

Candy drivers

Piper talks about Novelty Candy (‘we simply love to hear what is new in the world and new among our friends’); Ego Candy (‘what have people said about us since the last time we checked?); and Entertainment Candy (‘Many of us now are almost addicted to the need of something striking and bizarre and extraordinary and amazing’).

He also mentions Boredom Avoidance (‘If there is nothing significant and positive and hopeful in front of us to fill the hope-shaped place in our souls, then we are going to use our phones to avoid stepping into that boredom’); Responsibility Avoidance (‘We are not attracted to this day, and we prefer to avoid it for another five or ten minutes’); and Hardship Avoidance (‘You can barely get out of bed because it hurts so bad in the morning, and it is just easier to lie there a little longer).

All intelligent suppositions. But maybe, for us, the really interesting thing about in-bed email checking is that it shows the two Gods of current HR thinking going head-to-head and giving each other a few meaty smacks.

Engagement vs. Wellbeing

We want our employees to check their emails right? That’s a sign of engagement, right? The willingness to put in the so-called ‘discretionary effort’, working beyond paid hours and stretching productivity to the limits. Right?

But that’s also the antithesis of wellbeing, isn’t it?. We don’t want to reduce our people to automata, sad sacks with no life outside of the office. So as HR, do we back this or bin it?

Beware phone-induced insomnia

As we know by reading the press, there’s also a stream of experts queuing up to warn us that in-bed emailing can make us ‘hypervigilant,’ meaning that we reach a state in which our night is likely to be disturbed and we end up not getting sufficient restorative sleep.

Don’t forget the other experts who suggest sleeping near to your phone puts you in close proximity to radiation, that delays and reduces sleep, and causes headaches and confusion. Either that or give you super spidey powers. (The former is probably more likely, though.)

There’s probably a pertinent thought here about job insecurity, too. As we live through more rounds of redundancy, outsourcing, offshoring and job re-evaluation, we’re reduced to being 24-hour workers in order to gain competitive advantage when the guillotine is getting oiled and ready for a good chop.

As programmer and speaker Scott Hanselman suggests, maybe we’re religiously checking our email because of fear and also, for reasons not directly attributable to employers, to a sense of disconnectedness, and (in some cases) a feeling of urgency addiction.

Selected benefits

Writing in the American magazine Mother Jones, Clive Thompson claims increased ‘engagement’ doesn’t directly benefit individual employees.

Constant access may work out great for employers, since it continues to ratchet up the pressure for turning off-the-clock, away-from-the-desk hours into just another part of the workday. But any corresponding economic gains likely aren’t being passed on to workers: During the great internet-age boom in productivity, which is up 23 per cent since 2000, the inflation-adjusted wages and benefits for college graduates climbed just 4 per cent, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

So next time you find yourself refreshing your inbox at 6.30am, maybe you should remember the likes of Warren Buffet, Elton John, Tom Cruise, Vladimir Putin and Mikhail Prokhorov (his estimated wealth, $13.4billion.) Not only do they not check their mobiles in bed – they don’t actually have mobiles at all.

About the author

Andrew Baird

Andrew is the CEO of HRville. He is also Employer Brand Director of Blackbridge Communications, Editorial Director of Professionals in Law and an associate of The Smarty Train. Previously, he was the MD of TCS Advertising.