Over the summer, I had the joy of spending six days in nature. There was no technology. I didn’t listen to music or podcasts while walking. Instead, I focused on putting one foot in front of the other and regularly stopping to immerse myself in the awe of the surrounding environment.
If you’ve ever spent a sustained period of time detached from your digital device, you’ll know the joy and clarity it produces. New ideas emerge. Your brain feels truly rested. Your soul feels full.
We all know that too much tech in our working day can negatively impact our mental health and well-being.
A report for the European Parliament reviewed 22 prior studies on the impacts of digital technologies in the workplace and highlighted the impact of what’s called ‘technostress’. The report found that working with technology increases the probability of burnout, can negatively impact a person’s quality of life and lead to techno-addiction.
The adverse effects don’t depend on the type of technology a person uses but rather on the way the technology is used.
Research conducted by Gary Small and colleagues from the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California also found that frequent digital technology use significantly impacts how the brain functions and people behave.
The negative impacts include heightened attention-deficit symptoms, impaired emotional and social intelligence and brain development, technology addiction, social isolation, and disrupted sleep.
But it’s not all bad news. The researchers also concluded that specific types of computer programs and video games might improve memory, multitasking skills, fluid intelligence, and other cognitive abilities.
Our working day is surrounded by technology, but are you controlling how you use technology, or is it controlling you? Is technology hindering or accelerating your progress?
Finding the optimal approach isn’t just about what you do; it’s about what the people around you do. Leaders play a crucial role, and so too does your organisation’s culture, both of which set the standard around what’s accepted and expected.
Know the warning signs
Employers and employees need to be alert to the warning signs of tech overload. This step is crucial because chronic work-related stress is associated with health issues such as depression and coronary heart disease and directly impacts workplace productivity, job satisfaction and retention, and personal and professional relationships.
Start by noticing when the pressure at work is becoming unhealthy. For leaders, look for drops in productivity, unexplained absences and changes in your team member’s behaviour. For individuals, notice if you feel like you can never switch your computer or mobile devices off and if you are constantly refreshing your email screen.
Completely switching off from work takes discipline. If you consistently check emails and respond to work requests, you deny yourself the opportunity to have a real break. You are also creating a pattern of behaviour for yourself and those around you. Your boss or team will start to expect a response.
For leaders, discuss and agree on boundaries with your team members. Agree on what’s reasonable. Talk about how you will handle calls and emails received outside set work hours. You want to ensure enough time for your team to switch off from work.
The European Union has defined the right for employees to disconnect; as “a worker’s right to be able to disengage from work and refrain from engaging in work-related electronic communications, such as emails or other messages, during non-work hours”. While in Australia, as reported in the AFR, the Fair Work Commission is looking to introduce overtime and timesheet rules for tech workers to account for the time they spend checking emails and messages outside working hours.
Some organisations are setting rules around whether emails can be sent outside working hours. For example, a pop-up appears if you try to send an email outside the recipient’s working hours, asking you to check if you really want to send the email. What strategies can you adopt where you work?
Participating in online meetings all day is exhausting. Consider that not all conversations need to be face-to-face; some are equally as effective when you pick up the phone and chat.
During the day, get away from the computer and get moving. Exercise releases endorphins, which help to motivate and elevate one’s mood. You can even put headphones on and hold your meeting while walking.
The key is to get away from your desk because by shifting your environment, you alter your state, helping to reset your mindset and get a fresh perspective.
As a leader, role model this behaviour and find ways to interact with your team that is beyond the technology device.
Find the off switch
It’s easy to be ‘on’ all the time, so use technology to help you switch ‘off’. For example, schedule your phone to switch to ‘do not disturb’ and turn off social media push notifications and email alerts at set times during the day.
Be judicious about what applications you allow to send you alerts and notifications. Regularly check and remove apps from your phone that you no longer use.
When we are tired or have exerted a lot of self-control earlier in the day our self-control can start to wane. This is the concept of ego depletion, and it is a reminder that willpower can be a finite resource. Consequently, you want structures in place and habits established so you rely less on self-control to take these actions.
Avoid digital book-ending
Avoiding starting and finishing your day with technology.
Sleep is a critical ingredient for well-being, and technology impacts your sleep. Research shows that using technology which emits a blue light stimulates the brain, making it harder to fall asleep. It can also negatively impact your circadian rhythm, reduce the amount of REM sleep you receive and therefore impact your alertness when you wake up in the morning.
Set a practice where you switch off your phone and digital devices at a set time each evening. If you need to wake up with an alarm clock, avoid the clock being your phone. You want to avoid having your phone in the bedroom.
Next, don’t let your phone be the first thing you turn to in the morning.
Seek real connection
Author of Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, Oliver Burkeman, suggests that one of the reasons we spend so much time on our digital devices is because “They’re just the places we go to seek relief from the discomfort of confronting limitation”. By limitation, he is referring to the limited control we have over how our lives unfold.
It’s true. We can’t control everything. But we do have choices we can make each day about how we direct our energy and attention.
One of those choices we can make is how much time we spend in the company of others. We are hard-wired for connection, and too much technology fuels disconnection. Spending your day at work checking out social media and ‘doom-scrolling’ will not aid your productivity, mood or relationships.
Set aside regular times for social engagements and opportunities where you can share, laugh and connect away from your digital devices.
As writer and researcher Nassim Nicholas Taleb said, “The difference between technology and slavery is that slaves are fully aware that they are not free.” So the final questions to ponder is how much control does technology have in your day, and do you need to set yourself free?
Getting you ready for tomorrow, today®
Michelle Gibbings is a workplace expert, the award-winning author of three books, and a global keynote speaker. She’s on a mission to help leaders, teams and organisations create successful workplaces – where people thrive and progress is accelerated.