Lights and space - digital detox
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There is now firm evidence that a permanently plugged-in life is harming productivity and employee wellbeing. For many, a digital detox provides much-needed space to think and de-stress.

One in three sick notes written in the UK today is for a mental health issue, and we are not alone. There has been a global increase in the reporting and treatment of poor mental health, with many studies indicating that our ‘always on’ lives are one of the causes.

The workforce in the developed world is stressed, and this may be set to rise when more of Generation Z – born from 1996 onwards – enter the labour market. Generation Z are often described as ‘digital natives’, as they came of age in a time when the internet is ubiquitous. Young people have the highest ever recorded levels of depression and anxiety, and are self-reporting loneliness at rates significantly higher than elderly people.

But being ‘always on’ is affecting wellbeing across many demographics, not just young people. There’s evidence to suggest that being constantly connected online actually hinders our ability to connect to other people, as we rely on superficial interactions online instead of real-life conversations. Many of us use technology to distract ourselves from day-to-day boredom, stress or low mood. Our technology constantly stimulates us, leaving little space to think and process emotions both negative and positive.

Is technology stopping us from thinking?
It’s undeniable that digital technology has a huge array of benefits to the way we work and live. However, it’s important to look at the negative impacts it can also have. We now that the digital devices that make our life easier in some ways are absorbing a lot of our time and attention, and not always for productive purposes.

Overuse of technology has been shown to limit our natural cognitive abilities. There’s research suggesting that the constant stream of information we’re exposed to is causing us to develop a state of mind called ‘continuous partial attention’. When we are constantly looking for what’s coming next and being notified about new information and tasks, it’s a struggle to give our full attention to one thing.

Our devices and social networks are designed to be addictive, and there’s a psychology behind why the urge to check our phones or emails is so difficult to ignore. Because we never know when we’ll receive a message or notification, we’re compelled to check often just in case it’s there. When we finally do get that message, that reward reinforces the habit of frequent checking. This is known as operant conditioning, and explains why the average person in the UK now checks their phone every 12 minutes.

And although we often pride ourselves on our ability to multi-task, neuroscience has proven our brains don’t really work that way. Changing tasks frequently has been shown to decrease productivity by a serious margin, and working with emails and phone calls distracting us actually causes a drop in IQ.

With so many of us working at computers all day and receiving so much information online, it’s interesting to note that just the act of reading on a screen instead of on paper makes our understanding of the text is less nuanced and shallower.

Phones down, productivity up
A stressed workforce unable to concentrate and create is never going to achieve its full potential. From a business perspective, our hyperconnected culture is lowering efficiency.

The UK has the longest working hours in Europe, but is the least productive country. Workers feel pressure to deal with work emails and phone calls while off the clock, and a new study noted that 54% of commuters use their journeys to catch up on work emails.

As a result of many staff feeling unable to switch off from work, businesses are taking steps to create times and spaces without digital distractions. Many companies are adopting a ‘phones down’ approach in meetings to encourage concentration. Some businesses are now instigating email-free weekends, with a few even going as far as blocking access to servers outside office hours.

And with so many people checking work emails while on holiday that there’s a new word for it – taking a ‘fakecation’ – some organisations are prohibiting this practice to ensure staff get a real break. In a radical move, one of the world’s biggest car manufacturers, Daimler, automatically deletes emails that land in their employees’ inboxes while they are on leave. The ‘right to disconnect’ is also enshrined in French law, setting out clearly defined times when employees can and can’t answer work emails.

Companies are starting to realise that if they can support their employees to use digital technology is a more balanced way, their productivity can benefit.

Mitigating information overload
Some cultural commentators have suggested that in future we will look back on smartphone use the same way that we now look at smoking. It is interesting to note that technology pioneers Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were very strict about their children’s use of technology, and Jobs never let his children own or use iPads or iPhones.

Growing numbers of us now understand that we need to manage technology, rather than let it manage us. As a result more people are trying a digital detox, taking some time away from our screens to rebalance our relationships with them. However, avoiding information overload doesn’t have to involve taking time away from all screens, but being more considered about our relationships with our devices. Building healthier digital habits can lead to reduced stress, improved concentration and, ultimately, higher productivity.

If you think your colleagues or team could benefit from building more sustainable relationships with digital devices, find out more about how to do a digital detox.