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Why these Northern Ireland people find it so hard to switch off when they're not working


Information overload: Dr Melania Duca-Canavan tries to wean people off their phones
Information overload: Dr Melania Duca-Canavan tries to wean people off their phones
Globe trotter: Michael Morrow with wife Diane and children Olivia and Aidan
Jam-packed schedule: Matt Beaumont with his son Odhran

A survey conducted by tech giant Microsoft has shown that more than half of people (56%) have answered work-related calls away from the office and almost a third (30%) admit to regularly sacrificing personal time for work. Linda Stewart talks to three people about how hard it can be to switch off.

‘I’m in the office at 8am working all day and my emails are going until midnight’

Globe trotter: Michael Morrow with wife Diane and children Olivia and Aidan

Michael Morrow (39) is general manager for North America with engineering firm Cookstown-based CDE. He is married to educational consultant Diane (38), with whom he has two children, Aidan (11) and Olivia (9). Michael says:

I am a senior manager in an engineering firm and I have responsibility globally for our IT, but I’m also now in a business role, leading global scaling and setting up the North America region.

My ‘always on’ complaint is the time difference. I am leading teams in multiple continents, so, for example, when I am in the US the day for me starts at 5am, when the team here are in full flow. I’m dealing with the UK side for the first few hours and then I’m going into the office every day in the US and finishing at 6pm.

When I am here, I’m in the office at 8am working all day and my emails are still going until maybe midnight UK time.

At home, my wife runs her own business so we’d often be working late as well. It does eat into our evenings.

It makes time very precious and very short in supply and it makes weekends very important to us. We try to fly the kids out to me in America as often as

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possible. They love the US, they like travelling back and forward and they wouldn’t like to give that up.

We try to time my trips out there with their holidays. I combine my trips home with Christmas and birthdays.

I’m always on and always tuned into what’s going on. The time difference has upset my sleep patterns a bit — I’m normally a good sleeper.

I ride a motorbike quite a bit and that is my space where I clear my head. There’s no better way to clear your head than to get the helmet on.

I do use some tech to improve things. With Apple you can schedule a do not disturb order, so I tend to switch it on at 10pm and let it run until 7am. I try to make sure I’m not getting notifications throughout the night.

One of the things I try to do is separate my work phone and my personal phone. When I get in, I try to leave the work phone on the bedside table until I go to bed so I’m not on it all evening when the kids are up.

The separation of personal and business life is hard, so I try to use do not disturb order as much as possible. I also try to remain strategic as much as possible and not get into the operational side of things too much. You need to let other people do their jobs.

In our business, my level of travel is common. We’re selling into 90 countries, so a huge number of the employees are on the road at any time.”

‘I work hard, evenings and weekends, so I know what it’s like for my clients — some of them are so tired they nearly collapse on my couch’

Prof Dr Melania Duca-Canavan (32), originally from Italy but living in Dromore, Co Down, is a psychotherapist practising at the Orthoderm Clinic in Hillsborough. She is also director of the International Biocentric Psychoanalysis Institute (Belfast) and is married to aircraft engineer Brian Canavan (52). Melania says:

My concern is about  my clients. The majority of them are very stressed. Some of them begin a session with me at 9pm or 10pm at night.

I have had to adjust my time between my patients and students. I work hard and a lot on weekends, but I take a few hours for myself in the mornings. I practice aikido, I enjoy horse riding and I know how to keep myself mentally healthy.

I’m truly concerned about some of my patients because they come at night or on a Sunday or even during bank holidays when you should be with family.

They don’t have enough space in their schedule to take care of themselves and it’s sad that they have to do that.

They keep going, keep going and then they come and nearly collapse on my couch because they are so tired.

I have clients who keep their phone close to them or even in their hand when they’re on the couch, so I have to be very strict. It’s not only young clients, but also professional people.

They are very respectful and they know there are rules to follow, so they do put the phone down, but it is difficult for them. It is not uncommon for me to get up from the couch to make a cup of tea for them and when I come back they are on their phones.

It is a compulsion, something they do to cope with stress, nervousness, anxiety and an addicted brain — addicted to the ‘blue light’ of the screens, addicted to cognitive stimulation. The more the brain learns, the more it becomes happy, but it is a happiness which does not last because the brain makes room for more and more until our head is sore and we get tired and even frustrated. We would like to sleep, but we cannot. We are restless and become angry.

The reason why people can’t really disconnect from the internet or from social media is because of this need to feel connected and to feel part of something bigger. It’s a sort of a surrogate family. It tickles our need of belonging and also you feel seen — you feel a sense of importance and you feel your voice is heard.

A person who spends so much time on the internet may end up neglecting their family.

You go to a restaurant and you will see two people sitting. While they’re waiting for their meal, instead of talking, they’re on the phone and they do not even look at each other. Our society is so built around being online that if you can’t access the internet you feel cut off.

One of the reasons one patient came to me was that he found himself playing video games too much and for too long during the day, as well as his social media use.

It can become a compulsion and, in some cases, it can develop into a pathology or a dependence. It can give you social anxiety because people become more introverted and closed in on themselves. When they go outside, they find it difficult to socialise.

I am not sure that informing people is enough to raise awareness of the problem. It’s a start, for sure, but the way our society is growing, that fast, that oriented to virtual connection... I would be careful and I would start proposing more pragmatic solutions.

I personally have a few in mind. I have introduced a particular type of treatment called social therapy. During the ‘out of the room’ activities that we do all together, they (the patients) are not allowed to use any device and they do not feel the need to, at all.”

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‘Some days the only time my kids see me is if they wake up in the middle of the night’

Jam-packed schedule: Matt Beaumont with his son Odhran

Account manager Matt Beaumont (31), from Maidenhead but living in Co Tyrone, is married to vet Louise, with whom he has two children, Odhran (2) and Rory (7 months). He is an Alliance Party representative for Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Matt says:

When I first came to Northern Ireland I was doing event organising and booking speakers and various events and conference work on a purely freelance basis. There was a fair bit of travelling, but I was in control of my diary and it was absolutely wicked.

With the uncertainty that followed the Brexit referendum in 2016, everything slowly dried up and I had to go and change what I was doing. I’ve done whatever needs to be done to keep a roof over my head, the kids fed and my wife warm and content.

I had to completely change my life, which means most days I have to be in Belfast by 8am. Because I’m not working for myself, I have to work to the account diaries of others. It’s not an issue. I work really hard and I work conscientiously, but at the same time, working for other people means not finishing until 5.30pm or 6pm and it takes at least two hours to get home if there is no traffic on the M1.

Most days I leave the house when my wife and kids are still sleeping, just after 6am. At least once a week I get home and the kids are asleep and my wife is about to fall asleep.

I totally understand I’m doing it to be the provider and I am not hiding from that, but at the same time if most jobs weren’t so Belfast-centric, if we as a country were better at marketing the fact that rents in Dungannon, Fermanagh and Portrush are cheaper than Belfast and there’s still fairly decent access to airports, transport and the like, there could be so much more. 

As well as trying to be as useful and good an employee as possible, I’m doing constituency stuff for the Alliance Party.

I remember the first non-retail job I ever had. Smartphones were only really becoming a thing and it was like the shop shut and you got to go home.

When I got my first office sales job, that stopped because work emails connected to the phone. You would leave the office and on the Tube you’d be dealing with emails.

I remember thinking when I was about 27 that it was just a bit of a fad. And now it’s never stopped because business happens across the  world — I’m waking up in the middle of the night and sending an email to a speaker in Australia.

I get that it’s kind of what needs to be done, but it never used to be that way.

Two words: Audible and Netflix. I find things to de-stress with even if I have to work. If I’m writing a tender document or sending out a whole lot of emails, I find something decent to listen to or something to make it easier. I use Spotify as well. It’s about trying to make it not always about the work. If you do that, you will become a slave to work, and the kids deserve more from you.

Sometimes I do feel like a bit of a rubbish dad, not because I am a rubbish dad, but because some days the only time the kids see me is if they wake up in the middle of the night and I go to take them into our bed.

When I get in, I put the phone on silent, put it on charge with a do not disturb order and that stays there for as long as I can. I might check it if I wake up in the middle of the night, but it used to never leave my side. Phones are horribly addictive.”

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