Within a few months we had 10 years’ worth of digital transformation that changed how we work irreversibly, and brought new opportunities and challenges to our wellbeing.
Who could have imagined the intensity with which our workplace culture changed as a nation in 2020? Overnight, most of us found ourselves working from home full-time and social distancing. Throughout it all, we’ve trusted in technology to boost our wellbeing. There’s been a surge in downloads for wellness apps, live online exercise classes are the new normal and many GPs even started having video appointments – in 2020, wellbeing went digital.
Whilst undeniably the use of technology has opened up possibilities for advancing wellness, it’s also created obstacles to our wellbeing. In fact, a growing body of research is warning us that there can be a downside to the technology, especially with constant use.
The wellbeing advice around our use of devices has concentrated on people reducing their screen time. Sound advice, yet that didn’t fully remedy the negative side effects of technology use before COVID-19, and is unlikely to now, with our dependence on tech growing all the time.
“You are frozen”
It’s typical to meet our colleagues virtually now, and to see them freeze mid-sentence. But prior to the first lockdown, UK employees were working from home far less than employees in other high-income economies. In actuality, one-third of UK workers had never worked from home before.
The speed of the change to our working practices was so fast that we had little time to adapt. So for the majority of us, remote working translated into little more than mimicking how we used to operate in the office, at home. However, office-based ways of working haven’t converted into healthy practices at home. A survey last year revealed that people were working the equivalent of an extra 4 days from home a month and that over a third of employees were feeling pressure to always be responsive and to continuously be by their machines.
We have long been aware of the consequences of techno stress on mental health, sleep and productivity, and of the resulting cost to businesses that run into the billions. In this day and age, staff are spending more time in online meetings than they were pre-pandemic. What was once a conversation in-person now requires a formal meeting, producing even more screen time.
“Can you see my screen?”
We defaulted to video meetings as a substitute for seeing our team mates face to face, thinking we’d be better connected and communicate more effectively. It all seemed to make sense, as these online meetings came embedded with tools to share our screens, so we could work collaboratively from a distance.
However, the lack of non-verbal cues in a video meeting, the prolonged eye contact and the mirror anxiety that comes from seeing yourself on screen, are cognitively demanding and cause extra layers of stress to users. Almost half of respondents in a study, reported experiencing video fatigue, including ironically Eric Yuan, the CEO of Zoom.
Noticeably, the wellbeing of some social demographics is being disproportionately impacted by all this. Female employees are spending more time per day in meetings and are affected by mirror anxiety, more than men. Not to mention 37% of young adults aged 18-25, the age group who are most likely to rate their mental health as ‘bad’, are living in house shares. As a consequence, they are working and sleeping within the same four walls of their bedroom, whilst working with a screen.
“You are on mute”
Albeit we can all take responsibility for our wellbeing, employers can do more than individuals can alone. With this in mind, Ireland brought in a code of practice this year that urges businesses to address the right to disconnect. The UK however, has no legislation around digital wellbeing.
This could change with the impending employment bill. The trade union Prospect is calling for the government to include the right to disconnect within the bill. If passed, essentially employers could be legally required to agree when their people can and cannot be contacted, and mute communication outside these times.
Such legislation would make a difference in combating digitally-driven fatigue, but it won’t solve the entire problem. Employers have a great opportunity here, to go beyond the minimum standards set by the government, and re-evaluate their culture around digital technology, to create a healthier balance that benefits employees and businesses alike.
What role do organisations have to play?
And some companies have started rethinking their ways of working. Some have encouraged walking meetings, to integrate movement and nature into working time, without screens. Others have been scheduling focused team hours, where all are aware there is no pressure to be online and responding to messages. Many offices have made it optional to have cameras on in Teams and Zoom meetings, trusting instead that employees can use their judgement on how they best engage.
Employers like HSBC, Aldermore Bank and Citigroup have announced ‘zoom free’ afternoons or days, for their staff. This can be hugely beneficial for staff, but such an approach won’t fit the culture of every company, as Nuffield Health discovered when they tested a similar concept. For their colleagues, this model became more of a hindrance to flexibility and collaborative working, and so was ultimately reversed.
At the end of this pandemic, we will be continuing to work with technology despite its challenges. Indeed with future innovation, we expect to see its role in the workplace grow. However, that must not come at the cost of the health and wellbeing of employees. The values of a company are reflected in how its technology is used, and it’s a company’s values that define its brand. Therefore, getting the relationship right with technology will be central to attracting and retaining top talent.
After all, digital wellbeing is no longer about eliminating or reducing our use of tech. It’s about optimising how we are using it, to harness our productivity and creativity, so that organisations and individuals can thrive.
What can employers do?
Create or rethink workplace guidance on technology, based on what is in line with your company culture and values. Make clear your expectations for how and when employees should be contacting their colleagues. Clear boundaries will help resolve the pressure to always be online.
Streamline your communication. What channels are available for the business and teams to use specifically? Brief employees on which communication platforms are best used for which purposes, and guide them how to work with them. The clarity will reduce meeting fatigue yet still encourage collaboration.
Consider digital wellbeing training. Investing in such training will raise the priority of wellbeing internally and help staff to focus on the risks and benefits of their own behaviour with technology.
Let top leaders show the way. Alongside having good policies and guidance, one of the most effective ways to change a company’s culture, is for business leaders to set an example of how they are keeping healthy boundaries in their own use of technology.
The Bank Workers Charity website contains a range of material and interactive tools to support wellbeing.