Preventing digital overload must become part of employee wellbeing programmes

It is time for businesses to consider the impact of "digital overload" on wellbeing, performance and work-life balance, says Anna Kotwinski, digital wellbeing director of Shine Offline, a company set up to help people manage their use of technology.

Digital technology, and the smartphone in particular, has transformed the way we do business and conduct our social lives. This has opened up the opportunity for flexible working, but with it a culture has developed where employees increasingly feel the need to be available around the clock.

Do these devices really make lives easier, simpler and less stressful when work emails can be sent and received from the ski slope, and the line between our work and home life grows increasingly blurred?

As evidence about the negative effects of smartphones and other digital technology mounts, companies of all shapes and sizes cannot afford to ignore the inclusion of a digital management strategy within their wellbeing programmes.

Staff need guidance on how to manage the digital distractions in their lives, both at work and at home, to help them in an age when information overload and work-life balance is at crisis point.

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Digital overload is arguably the defining problem of society today. Twenty-four hours a day we are bombarded with endless interruptions through emails, texts, alerts and instant messaging. These distractions disrupt our flow of work and our train of thought, making it incredibly difficult to focus.

For many it is far too easy to be reactive, wasting time on relatively useless tasks and interactions, remaining busy but not productive. And people take a break from work, many default to their screens - through social media and the tantalising bottomless offerings of the web.

The digital revolution has also meant we can be available at all hours and are spending less time truly "off" work. Research carried out by the Chartered Management Institute in 2015 found that UK employees unwittingly cancelled out their entire annual leave by checking emails outside of work hours. The study found that smartphones in particular are instrumental in this "always on" culture, and that burnout and ill health are the inevitable price.

This is of no surprise when research released by Ofcom found that millions of people are now seeking a break from their technology. The report found that the majority of us admit to being "hooked" on our smartphones, with one-third saying they have difficulty disconnecting at all.

Smartphones have become so ubiquitous that one-third of adults (rising to half of those under 24) now feel the need to check them within five minutes of waking up. There is even an official term coined for this behaviour. The Collins Dictionary defines "nomophobia" as "a state of stress caused by having no access or being unable to use one's mobile phone".

This culture of constant connection takes a heavy personal toll. The introduction of the smartphone into business has meant that boundaries between professional and personal life are blurred as never before. Sir Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University, has spoken about an "email epidemic" damaging UK productivity. A working culture where employees want to be seen to be available by email at all hours is causing stress and depression, and in turn making workers less efficient.

Research published by Deloitte in September 2016 highlighted the impact that constant connectivity was having on personal lives and relationships, with one in three adults admitting that mobile phone usage causes arguments with their partner.

A wellbeing director at a leading international professional services firm recently told us that they have young and ambitious staff regularly working in excess of 15-hour days and unable to switch off. There is nothing new about employees consciously choosing to work long hours in order to get ahead in their career, but in a new digital age, where individuals can be contactable and engage with work through electronic devices around the clock, arousal levels are continually peaked and the mind has no time for recovery and replenishment.

Combating digital overload

At the E-resilience Conference in April this year, organised by Coventry University and the Switched On Culture Research Group (SOCRG), Dr Almuth McDowall, psychologist at University of London, warned that these behaviours are not sustainable. If staff fail to take proper breaks from their work, the effect on wellbeing, stress levels and work-life balance are the same whether or not the expectation to be constantly connected and available is explicit, implicit or self-imposed.

Work-related stress is costing UK companies millions. The Government's Labour Force Survey, published in October 2015, found that it accounts for 35% of all work-related ill health and 43% of days lost. There has been no reliable way to record lost productivity due to presenteeism, but it is widely acknowledged as being far costlier to business than absenteeism.

As the rise in wellbeing programmes within business continues, it is paramount that organisations start to recognise the impact that information and communications technology (ICT) is having on the mental health of their staff. There is also the question of duty of care. If technology is given to an employee to enable them perform their role, or even as a perk, this facilitates and exacerbates a 24/7 working culture.

So how can companies provide support and guidance in how to better manage digital technology usage in order to safeguard the wellbeing and work-life balance of their staff so they can perform to their best and build resilience?

One route would be to follow France, where the Government has acknowledged the impact that connectivity is having on both the economy and employee wellbeing, and has proposed a new right to disconnect rule to ban workers from sending or replying to emails outside of working hours. If approved, the law will be in place by July 2017.

Many French companies have already introduced guidelines against using work devices after hours, with some organisations even shutting down servers overnight. Management have claimed that as a result productivity has increased, with employees returning to work refreshed and relaxed after important down time.

But is this really the answer? At the E-resilience Conference, academics and industry experts were largely in agreement that legislation limiting access to emails and servers outside of work hours would disadvantage those who have a need or a preference to work non-traditional hours.

Dr Almuth McDowall pointed out that there are few role models for healthy use of technology, especially at senior levels, and that we need a better understanding of the impact of our behaviour on the wellbeing of others. If an employee sends out a work email on a Saturday evening, this has an impact on the recipient, whether or not it is intended, and this is especially true if they are in a position of authority. Responsibility for this complicated issue needs to be taken at individual, line manager and organisational levels.

Individual differences play a huge role in how well someone manages the digital technology in their lives and it is important that people feel empowered to make some small changes to their own behaviour that create a greater sense of balance and control.

Starting to use technology in a more mindful way is the first step. The following are a few tips to give employees about how to achieve this:

Leave your phone at the bedroom door

2014 study by digital marketing company Tecmark found that the average smartphone user reaches for their phone by 7.31am to check emails and social media. It is not surprising as our own research tells us that eight out of 10 people are using their phone as an alarm clock. Invest in an alarm clock to remove the smartphone from the bedroom. Leaving your phone off while you get up, dressed and eat breakfast makes for a better start to the day.

Out of sight is out of mind

If your smartphone is always within arm's reach, the temptation is to check it every few minutes. Make sure there are times you turn it off, put it in a drawer or your work bag. Set out some rules about your phone-free time - for example, a proper break for lunch, to focus on an important deadline, or for your child's bedtime.

Turn off notifications and use "flight mode"

If the apps on your phone are set to alert you to emails, social media and every time there is a bid on your old sofa on eBay, then you will be distracted by it all day. Turn the default notifications off or even remove certain apps from your phone altogether. Make use of "flight mode" and stop texts and calls coming through.

Use old-fashioned pen and paper

Questions on any topic can now be answered through the power of Google. Amazing. But the distraction of constantly going online can get in the way of a productive day. The solution is simple: carry a small notepad and pen and every time something pops up that requires you to go online, resist the temptation of doing it there and then.  Start a list and go online only a few times a day to action it.

Be mindful and reclaim the pause in your day

When we are constantly distracted by technology we are never fully present in the moment. Mindfulness offers a solution, giving a break from constant bombardment of information and some space to focus on what is important. Resist the temptation to automatically reach for your phone every time you are sat on a bus, on your lunch break or waiting for an appointment. Try to be mindful and break that habit. Instead of looking at your phone on your commute, read a book, look out of the window, or just close your eyes and breathe.

Shine Offline offers programmes to help people recognise the impact of distractions caused by smartphones and other technology on their wellbeing and productivity. Such programmes highlight the impact of small behavioural changes on managing distraction, lowering stress and building resilience.