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Internet Addiction and the Employers Role: a case for a caring code of practice for internet usage

By Dr Sean Sullivan PhD
Alison Penfold
Mike Goulding
Mary Anne Cooke


Internet Addiction covers a range of behaviour around use of the Internet and includes accessing of pornographic websites. From an employers perspective, if occurring during employment, this involves some or all of the following:

- Extensive accessing of sites that may or may not have relevance to the employers business, but has detrimental effects upon the employee

- Accessing sites that are inappropriate for the workplace, such as pornography, gambling, chat-room use and others.


Effects for the Employer
Consequential effects for the employer include reduced efficiency for the business due to absence as a result of illness, over-stress, poor focus of employees to the task, need for reallocation of tasks and responsibilities, increased staff turnover and impacts on staff culture development. In addition, there may be the possibility of liability because Internet usage may be an integral part of the employees job, and that warnings, promotion barriers or even dismissal will not discharge an employer’s obligation around a healthy or safe workplace, let alone foster a caring culture when mental health issues arise.

Effects on the Employee
Accessing sites extensively as well as simply accessing prohibited (by the organisation or by law) sites, will have costs and effects for the employee. These effects may include over-tiredness, irritability, reduced efficiency, isolation from support of colleagues and employer, family disruption, increase susceptibility for illness, and negatively effect opportunities for promotion. Where the behaviour is in respect of prohibited websites and is excessive the likelihood that an addictive process is operating is enhanced.


Impacts of the Health & Safety in Employment Act (HSE Act) as to how Internet usage will be a responsibility of the employer are currently unknown. The Gilbert case, before the proposed amendment, found that even on Appeal that the employer was liable for aspects of harm resulting from volume or nature of the work performed. Invitation to access many prohibited sites are a common hazard for anyone using the Internet, and do not require intention on the part of the employee. The HSE Bill extends the terms of ‘harm’ to include ‘mental harm’, and ‘hazard’ to include the effects arising from ‘physical or mental fatigue’ (section 2 as amended by clause 4 of theAct). The Act defines hazards and harm ‘in a comprehensive way’, sets requirements that ‘all practical steps (are taken) to ensure health and safety, and that ‘safety issues are best achieved through co-operation’ (amended s5). Where employees have access to the Internet during the course of their employment, and especially where Internet use is integral to their job, the responsibility of the employer to be aware of and manage the risk of Internet addiction may be required under the HSE Act.


Many Codes of Practice for Internet Usage may result in punitive outcomes for those employees who breach these codes. The draft code on the Department of Internal Affair’s Website ( www.dia.govt.nz ) identify behaviours to be discouraged. They include Internet gambling, activity that ‘violates New Zealand law’, or ‘extensive private usage’. Although care is taken not to define ‘extensive’, the site suggests that this will be likely if ‘it interferes with production of business unit outputs or costs the business unit an unacceptable amount of money’. This description of ‘excessive’ is likely to be seen as reasonable by most employers. However, what may violate New Zealand law is a little less easy to identify as the law around pornography, namely the Films, Videos, and Publications Classifications Act 1993, depends upon the degree the publication amongst other things, ‘demeans’ others. Publishing of objectionable material (and downloading of such material was determined as publishing recently by New Zealand Courts) can result in fines and/or imprisonment, with over 450 investigations and 100 prosecutions, over 95% successful, in the last four years.

A prosecution will have substantial negative effects upon the employer if it occurred while at work. Whereas it may be expedient to dismiss an employee who is accessing pornography over the Internet, especially if continued employment may appear to attract unwanted publicity or criticism (eg female employees of a male’s behaviour; or all other employee’s of an employee’s accessing child pornography sites, even if irregular), the appropriate response may be less simple. If the employee has developed an addictive behaviour, then a more caring and responsible approach may be to provide assistance to the employee to change that behaviour. This would engender a culture that helps rather than punishes those who fall prey to processes that were not conceived of a decade ago and are little understood now. This may also be appropriate under the HSE Act.


A Code of Practice for Internet Usage could therefore require that any employee who breaches the Code through accessing inappropriate sites such as pornography or gambling, or extensively accesses other Internet sites, should receive appropriate coaching from their manager, and receive free assessment from a qualified therapist in order to identify addictive processes. This should not be necessarily treated as an immutable barrier to promotion within the organisation otherwise this will in itself act as a barrier to disclosure.

Early intervention is a goal of all addiction behaviours, resulting in a much better prognosis. This can be encouraged by information to employees and employers that all are at risk of developing addictive behaviours, especially if there is poor understanding of the risk that newer electronic environments offer. In respect of Internet pornography addiction an understanding of the risk is important and also, that the sex drive is a powerful and primitive drive that can provide the first reason for the behaviour, but that this may be replaced by the need to ‘escape’ negative self-views and stress as the addiction progresses. The focus away from punishment and social ostracism can encourage self-identification and help-seeking while the contrary results in convert continuation of the behaviour until control effectively is lost.


Addictions are common behaviours, whether associated with gambling, alcohol or drugs, compulsive spending, and many others. Most people realise late in the process that an addictive behaviour has developed, and have added other negative symptoms as the behaviour has intensified. Depression and anxiety are commonly associated. This supports the focus upon early identification through an understanding and non-punitive work environment. The first step to behaviour change will be to motivate a desire to change and belief in change. Addictions are often identified in part by unsuccessful attempts to stop the behaviour in the past. Others may not be motivated to change but may commence the process due to a required participation. This is not uncommon, and therapy may focus upon raising insights around costs and ambivalence.

A comprehensive assessment is an important first step and may assist motivation. It is important not to label but rather provide information for both the employee and the therapist.

Some will require interim medical interventions for depression, especially as self-harm resulting from shame and guilt is common around addictions.

Following assessment, several therapeutic approaches offer the likelihood of relatively prompt behaviour change, often with brief interventions.

Therapy should be delivered by counsellors with addictions training and an understanding of the Internet and it’s ability to contribute to addictive processes.


Dismissal for breach of a Code has negative consequences for both the employee and the employer. For the employee: if the behaviour is due to an addictive process that they have unwittingly entered into, and for which they no longer have the ability to escape from, then not only can the behaviour be understood but also the harm minimised. For the employer: the costs for the organisation of losing skilled and experienced employees and consequential re-employing and training are considerable. A caring employer can enhance employer-employee relationships while a punitive approach may potentially result in prosecution under the amended HSE Act.


The Internet is a powerful tool and will continue to grow in its usefulness. With its speed of access, its infinite depth of information, entertainment potential and advent of ‘virtual reality’, there is the possibility of overlooking its ability to control peoples behaviour. A Code of Practice for Internet Usage should distinguish between behaviours that may indicate an addictive process may be developing and, for want of a better term, a simple breach. In these circumstances a caring process that recognises this possibility and offers help rather than punishment fosters a positive culture within organisations and ultimately reduces costs. The response should include referral to an experienced therapist for assessment and assistance. In addition, awareness and understanding of the risk for such addictive processes should be available for both employers and staff in order to reduce risk and to encourage understanding for those who do develop such behaviours. For many, the fear of social ostracism is as great a discouragement of disclosure as is a punitive code, and motivation for help-seeking at early stages of the process will be lost.