Technology is neither intrinsically good, nor intrinsically evil. However, evidence is emerging that the way we are using digital devices could be affecting our concentration, cognition and creativity.
If a pharmaceutical company developed a medication that needed to be taken every 12 minutes by 87% of the population, rigorous research and testing would be required. Yet smartphone use in the UK, to which these statistics apply, is something that’s developed organically with little investigation into how it affects our brains and bodies.
However, the research is catching up, and we’re learning more about the health consequences of how we’re using digital technology.
And what this research is telling us is stark. It’s saying that the way we’re using our smartphones, computers and tablets isn’t just hindering our productivity, but reducing our creativity. It’s also impairing our communication skills and the development of closeness and trust in relationships, and causing us to feel stressed and overwhelmed. And there are serious implications of all of this for the mental health of the workforce, an especially salient issue with Mental Health Awareness Week coming up.
Digital overload clearly has adverse consequences for how we work. So how are businesses responding?
Digital wellbeing goes mainstream
Finding an appropriate way to protect staff – and protect yourself – against digital overload and addiction isn’t easy, but it is important. We’re seeing that clever companies are taking note of the risks of digital overload, and taking action to shield their people from it. And although digital wellbeing is yet to become a standard feature of organisational wellbeing thinking, it is no longer peripheral.
A 2018, an Economist report on wellbeing programmes [PDF] surveyed 500 senior HR executives from global organisations about their wellbeing priorities. Around 70% of respondents felt that initiatives that focus on the impact of digital consumption were important, as were polices that promote digital wellbeing. Significantly, over 50% felt they had implemented such measures well or very well. It is encouraging to see that some companies have moved beyond email to address some of the core wellbeing issues associated with the technology.
Tanya Goodin, a leading authority on the impact of digital technology in the workplace, works with major companies to help them to engage with the digital wellbeing agenda.
She says “I have seen momentum building around this issue for a number of years. And as evidence continues to emerge, of the possible negative consequences of our digital over-consumption, I’m seeing more and more companies taking steps to address the issue. I’m convinced 2019 is going to be the year that tackling poor digital behaviour in the workplace goes mainstream.”
Many critics feel that unbridled email access is having a detrimental effect on our health and wellbeing, biting into our private time and allowing scant opportunity for rest and recovery from the rigours of the working week. We know from CIPD research that 40% of people check their work emails more than five times a day outside of office hours, and a third say that remote access means they can never really switch off from work. This seems a good place to start for companies looking to protect their people from the harms of digital overload.
Wellbeing expert Professor Sir Cary Cooper of Manchester Business School has been prominent in calling for a more responsible approach to managing the email flow. He notes that “there’s a whole field now called technostress, and the evidence is that unconstrained emails, where there is no guidance by employers, are damaging for people’s health”.
Among the first businesses to act on email overload was Volkswagen, when in 2012 they turned off email outside working hours. And in 2014, Daimler in Germany introduced an optional program that automatically deletes emails when the recipient is on holiday. Other companies that have discussed or enacted similar policies include Porsche, Orano, BMW and AXA. And France famously introduced a “right to disconnect” at the beginning of 2017, with companies instructed to set out the hours when staff shouldn’t send or respond to emails.
But what can companies do that goes beyond email?
Towards tech-life balance
Some organisations are looking at the bigger picture around how everyday tech use shapes the way we work. One innovative example is Scandinavian telecoms company Telenor, who introduced a highly innovative programme called Workfulness, built around neuroscientific insights on focus and productivity. The programme’s guidebook says that the organisation has “a responsibility to ensure that businesses and individuals have a healthy digital working environment”, and that the business has a responsibility to discuss the consequences of being ‘always on’.
Importantly, the Workfulness programme isn’t about reducing the amount of technology in the workplace. It’s about achieving a healthy balance that addresses the risks to the wellbeing and productivity of the user but doesn’t eliminate the benefits to the business. We’re pleased to see this sort of approach – the workplace needs to be an environment that is supportive of digital health and wellbeing, and there is a clear convergence of interest for employees and businesses in making it so.
Find out more about the forward-thinking ways that organisations are creating better tech-life balance in our new white paper.