CrackBerry addicts: Why the workers who can't switch off are suing their employers

No, seriously. Broken marriages, crashed cars, sore thumbs - constant use of BlackBerrys is driving employees to distraction (and the law)

No self-respecting boss-in-waiting would be without one. The BlackBerry has replaced the Filofax and the mobile phone as the must-have status symbol for the 21st-century office climber. But now these discreet handheld gadgets, which provide workaholics with constant email updates, are being blamed for chronic insomnia, relationship break-up, premature burn-out, and even car crashes.

British employers are being warned they could face multi-million-pound legal actions from BlackBerry-addicted staff on a similar scale as class law-suits taken against tobacco companies. Research by the University of Northampton has revealed that one-third of BlackBerry users showed signs of addictive behaviour similar to an alcoholic being unable to pass a pub without a drink.

The report found that some BlackBerry users displayed textbook addictive symptoms - denial, withdrawal and antisocial behaviour - and that time with their families was being taken up with BlackBerry-checking, even at the dinner table.

Professor Nada Kakabadse, joint author of the study, said that lawsuits were a growing issue for employers who were being sued for failing in their duty of care to staff and in following health and safety guidelines. In one case in the US, a female business consultant claimed that her marriage fell apart because she was constantly checking messages. She ended up losing custody of her children and sued her employer for damages.

"Enlightened companies that issue BlackBerrys as standard like pen and paper should also have policies on how to use them, so that people can use technology in a way that doesn't have an addictive side," said Professor Kakabadse of Northampton Business School.

The BlackBerry backlash has already begun in the US, where firms are settling out of court to avoid negative publicity.

The Independent on Sunday has learnt that, in one recent case, an employer had to pay substantial damages to a woman who was so distracted by her BlackBerry while driving that she crashed and killed a motorcyclist. In another, a woman took action after putting cleaning fluid on her baby's nappy instead of baby oil because she was distracted by her BlackBerry.

And last week, health officials warned of a painful new syndrome - BlackBerry Thumb - caused by excessive use of the portable devices. The American Physical Therapy Association says that middle-aged businessmen are particularly at risk of this disorder, which can aggravate arthritis.

More than five million BlackBerrys have been sold worldwide since they were first launched eight years ago and they have been credited with revolutionising working life. Also known as personal data assistants, these palm-sized handsets allow people to send and receive emails and other messages as well as to browse the internet.

The maker of BlackBerry, Research In Motion, argues that the machines enable people to be more efficient and to save "dead" time while in transit or waiting for meetings. However, experts are increasingly warning that they are as addictive as drugs and alcohol. They have even been dubbed "crackberries" because some users say they make them feel compelled to check messages constantly.

This comes as a new study reveals that nine out of every 10 users have a compulsive need to check for messages and that nearly half experience long-term negative consequences associated with carrying a BlackBerry. A survey of business workers by researchers at the Sloan School of Management at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US found that employees were constantly tired because they were waking up in the middle of the night to check or send messages. One interviewee likened the sense of potential gain from staying in touch with work to "pulling the lever of a slot machine".

Melissa Mazmanian, one of the report's authors, described the BlackBerry as a "comfort blanket", which fulfils the human need to reach out to others but also maintains a sense of control, unlike a telephone conversation. "Spouses find it frustrating and aggravating and to avoid problems couples have to negotiate rules and boundaries over use," said Ms Mazmanian.

Her findings are backed up by an investigation carried out by the Chartered Management Institute. This found that managers are now under extreme pressure to be contactable around the clock, but this has a hugely negative impact on productivity, health and wellbeing. This is exacerbated by the fact that many take communication gadgets, such as Blackberrys, laptops and mobile phones, away on holiday and refuse to switch them off.

Phillip Hodson, from the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), said that devices such as BlackBerrys were "beguilingly seductive" because they provide the illusion of freeing up more time, but that the human brain was not properly adapted to the multi-tasking that modern life demands. "The real battle now is not over money but over who controls time," he said. "What this nation needs is eight hours' work, eight hours' rest and eight hours' play a day. Gordon Brown doesn't know how to play, that's his problem - he's probably on his BlackBerry."

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) said that employers should actively discourage office cultures where people feel they are under pressure to be working round the clock.

But Martyn Sloman, policy adviser to the CIPD, said that people do need to take responsibility for their own behaviour rather than "shooting the messenger".

A spokesman for the manufacturers of BlackBerry dismissed suggestions that the machines are addictive. "They reclaim that productive time each day that would otherwise be wasted in transit or waiting for meetings," said James Hart, vice-president of Research In Motion. "BlackBerry handsets can help us to achieve more - both at work and at home. But, as with any piece of technology, the most important button is the 'off' switch."

Additional reporting by Jonathan Owen

Jemma Kidd

Jemma Kidd, make-up artist and sister to model Jodie:

"I have an addiction to my BlackBerry; I travel quite a bit so my mobile phone and BlackBerry are my mobile office and how I stay in touch. I recently went to Hong Kong, Australia and America on a whistle-stop tour to visit new markets where my make-up line has just launched. My BlackBerry really came into its own on that trip; I was on the move constantly and the time differences with London made speaking with my team hell. At one point on that trip I thought I had lost my BlackBerry in a department store and went into complete panic. I was just about to start hyperventilating when I realised it was actually hiding at the bottom of my huge handbag. Mobile communication devices can become rather too addictive; I have to be strict with myself and put my BlackBerry out of reach or I start checking correspondence at all hours of the day."

Dylan Jones

Dylan Jones, GQ editor:

"I thought I was addicted when I first got one, but I'm finding myself using it more and more the longer I have it. If I wake up in the night I check the BlackBerry for emails - it's awful. I'm not obsessive, but it becomes part of your business life. You're in constant contact with the office. When I'm on holiday I'm in contact with the office constantly - it makes it so much easier. Rather than come back to work and find 500 emails which you have to spend a day catching up on, it makes it much more efficient. The first time my BB crashed I had a panic attack - it made me realise how much I depend on it."

Denise Van Outen

Denise Van Outen, actress:

"I'm a BlackBerry addict. Most people use it for business, but I use it to stay in touch with my family. It can be a bit distracting when you're on a dinner date and you need to check your messages, but if the date is not going well it gives you a good excuse to leave. I take it everywhere. I went to see a show in Las Vegas recently and I was on my BlackBerry all the way through. I find the BlackBerry is more important than the date - in future I'm going to have to leave it at home when I go on a date."

Simon Woodroffe

Simon Woodroffe, founder of Yo! Sushi:

"I'm a little bit addicted but it's so useful because you can travel with it anywhere. Yes, I carry it with me all the time, I'm hooked on checking on what's coming in, but I think I've got a reasonable rapport with it. I've seen loads of people using their BlackBerrys at the theatre - if it's not a very good play. If you see me looking at my BlackBerry at a dinner party you'll know it's because you're boring company."

Top Gear: Gadgets and gizmos that have the crack factor

Sony Reader

Stores hundreds of books electronically - Sony claims it looks like real ink and paper. Unlike previous attempts at creating "ebooks", the Reader's screen has no flicker or back light, which in theory means book lovers can read for hours without eye strain.

Price: £190

Crack factor: 3/5

Microsoft Zune

Microsoft's attempt at an "iPod killer". Has more features than its rival: a monthly subscription music service, an FM radio and the ability to share music with others users by a wireless connection. And it plays videos.

Price: £134

Crack factor: 4/5

LG Leo Camera Phone

A mobile phone snaps pictures as well as a digital camera. The LG LEO KG920 is the first UK mobile with five megapixel images - at least a couple of megapixels more than rivals. Users claim superb picture quality. Two gadgets for the price of one.

Price: £450 (handset only)

Crack factor: 3/5

Playstation Portable

A handheld gaming console that also offers music, video, photos and wireless access to the internet. Gamers can challenge each other over a wireless connection. Although users have complained of a lack of "must-have" games, the PSP has sold more than 20 million units worldwide.

Price: £179.99

Crack factor: 4/5

Tomtom Navigator

Popular in-car navigation system. A small screen shows a bird's-eye view of the road, as well as a direct-overhead view. They use a satellite receiver to show your location, and provide spoken directions.

Price: from £110

Crack factor: 4/5

Sony Vaio Laptop

Slim and lightweight laptops are a firm favourite among "road warrior" businessmen who use the machines while travelling. Only rival among design aficionados is the Apple Macbook Pro.

Price: from £549

Crack factor: 3/5

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