Office infiltrating our psyche
Imagine you are walking out of the office late one evening, wearily heading home after a frustrating day’s work. Suddenly you feel the familiar vibration of your phone in your jacket pocket.
What does your manager want this time? Doesn’t she know you have a life outside work too? It’s tempting to ignore it, but you never know. It might be something important.
You reach for the device only to discover that it wasn’t vibrating after all. It was a figment of your imagination.
Sound familiar? If so, you’ve been afflicted by what is called phantom vibration syndrome or PVS. This happens when you think your mobile is vibrating, perhaps a demanding customer emailing you or a pushy boss sending a text, but it wasn’t real.
It’s been estimated that this creepy phenomenon affects nine out of 10 people. PVS is not limited to work, of course. It can afflict anyone who’s glued to their smartphone. But given the pressures of the modern office – where digital technology seamlessly blends with professional anxiety – that employees are especially susceptible is unsurprising.
It was bad enough when your manager gave you a paid phone so he could call you day and night with some irrelevant demand. Now it’s worse. The office is stalking us in ghostly form. Yes, that’s right. We are being haunted by our workplaces, be it at the weekend when relaxing with friends or in the evening while putting the kids to bed.
Researchers are stumped by PVS, also known as ‘ringexity’ and ‘phonetom’. They don’t exactly know what causes it. Clearly some kind of hallucination is involved. And since that’s a rather unnerving proposition, most of us quickly dismiss PVS as a silly ‘trick of the mind’ and then get on with things.
But there’s more to it than that, especially work-related PVS. We believe it’s an eerie symptom of an office culture that has totally colonised our existence, to the extent that it induces a kind of haunting delirium, even when we’re not working.
In other words, the ghost in the machine does have a basis in reality: the cult of boundless work that’s become the centrepiece of neoliberal economies, where a job isn’t a means to an end, but the very purpose of life.
In the old days factory workers could clock-out and forget about their jobs. Today most of us carry it home with us, in our jacket pocket. The danger is that we never turn off, constantly worrying about the ‘to do’ list.
Clearly something has to give. Stress and high-blood pressure. Difficulty sleeping or relaxing. One glass of wine too far. Now we can add PVS to the list, a haunting sign that the office has even infiltrated the inner-most workings of our psyche.
Why not take the almost unimaginable step and ditch our mobiles altogether? The trouble is that PVS isn’t really about the phone, that’s just a bit of silicon. It’s about our unhealthy relationship to work. Even after tossing our device into the river we’d still feel its ghoulish tremble, reminding us that emails need answering … urgently!
Is our fate sealed in a technologically enabled workplace hell? Although the vibes might tell us it is, like any other pathology the first step to the cure is admitting that we have a problem. Are you ready to face your digital demons?
Peter Fleming is professor of business and society, UTS Business School, and Carl Rhodes is professor of organisation studies, UTS Business School.
This opinion piece was first published on SMH The Lowdown.