Digital overload is causing burnout, stress, lack of productivity and more. So is it time to put down the tech and take back control of your life?

We are more plugged in than ever. Our work-days are consumed by an unceasing connection to digital devices.

The same technology that’s changed the working environment has created a culture where many of us feel it necessary to work around the clock. For some, that compulsion has become an addiction.

Battling burnout

The overuse of digital devices has been blamed for burnout, sleeplessness, lack of productivity and other, more serious, health issues.

Evidence also suggests that as the volume of workplace technology has increased, our productivity has taken a downward turn.

“For those who feel that they can’t switch off from technology, there is a risk they never get proper recovery time, which is bad for long-term wellbeing and mental health,” says Emma Donaldson-Feilder, an occupational psychologist and director at Affinity Health at Work.

Global differences

The global situation on this issue is fragmented, with some countries more willing to recognise the issues and others less so.

In 2016, the French government initiated a new employment law to guarantee employees the ‘right to disconnect’.

In force since the beginning of 2017, it is “the employee’s right to disconnect from any digital device or tool used for professional purposes such as smartphones, email or the internet during his or her free time and vacation.”

The right to disconnect, in principle, benefits all employees, regardless of their professional category and related responsibilities.

More recently, French telecoms giant Orange declared: “Respect for private life and the right to switch off are considered to be fundamental rights at Orange. It is a matter of protecting employees from intrusive practices (such as email, SMS, or instant messaging services) at any time of the day or night, over the weekend, during days off or during training courses originating from managers, but also from their colleagues or themselves."

Return to sender

Germany is at the forefront of the digital ‘switch-off’, or at least digital reduction. For example, IBM Germany blocks employees’ emails between 8 pm and 6 am.

Uwe Hück, head of car maker Porsche’s works council and deputy chairman of Porsche’s supervisory board, declared that the firm’s employees should be protected from work-related emails in their free time. Any correspondence between 7 pm and 6 am should be “returned to sender”.

 “To read and reply to emails from the boss during the evenings is unpaid working time that increases stress – that’s just not acceptable.” Uwe Hück, Porsche.

Other high-profile companies such as VW, BMW and Daimler in Germany, and Areva and Axa in France, have also introduced steps to limit out-of-hours messaging to reduce burnout among workers. Indeed, Daimler is something of a pioneer in this regard. As far back as 2014, it introduced a mail-blocking policy for staff that go on holiday.

States of emergency

Other companies, and other countries, are more reluctant to join the digital switch-off culture.

In the US, employers expect, or even require, employees, to respond to their mobile phones or laptops, day and night. The very employer-friendly environment in the US means any active central government legislation to reduce digital dependency is highly unlikely.

In some US cities, however, the situation is changing. In early 2018, New York’s City Council declared that it is considering a law that would make it illegal for employers to require workers be on call to answer emails after work.

As one commentator put it: “Getting the measure enacted in the notoriously workaholic environment of New York, a massive global financial and media hub that prides itself on being ‘the city that never sleeps’, could prove to be far more difficult. The measure will no doubt face fierce opposition from the city’s business community, should it even get that far to be approved.”

Ultimately, finding the balance between a perceived need to be connected 24/7, and the repercussions of a failure to do so, is the current challenge.

Requirement for rest

There are other, more significant, side effects of avoiding or ignoring digital ‘downtime’, says Donaldson-Feilder.

“The body and mind never get a chance to return to a resting state. It means that these individuals are ‘always on’, which can be damaging for mental and physical functioning.”

Preventing digital overload has become a key part of employee well-being programmes. The concept of ‘digital detoxing’ has taken hold in many boardrooms and organisations.

Virgin Management, which supports the Branson family and the growth of the Virgin brand, shuts down all emails for two hours each week, with no access granted. Instead, employees are encouraged to communicate with colleagues, step away from their desk and simply take a break.

“Some countries and organisations are trying to manage the issues through laws, policies, and mandates,” adds Donaldson-Feilder. “However, it may actually be more beneficial to support employees through awareness-raising and helping them take greater control of technology, rather than reducing control still further through universal mandates.”

Leading by example

Companies can no longer ignore the issue at the expense of their employees’ wellbeing. The onus is on leaders to take control. “For leaders and senior executives,” says Donaldson-Feilder, “the demands and expectations are potentially greater, so it is even more important to find ways to switch off – both for their own well-being and in order to be effective leaders.

“Good leadership requires the leader to be fully present in their interactions with others in order to create relationships that inspire and support people. It is particularly important that they put their technology to one side, not only to take a break for themselves, but also to really meet others.

“To avoid digital overload, it’s essential to be conscious of the impact of that technology on your business. By creating awareness in the boardroom and among your employees, it’s possible to benefit from the advantages while avoiding the disadvantages.”

Read our top tips for avoiding digital burnout.

This article is from the latest ‘Well Working’ edition of the Odgers Berndtson magazine, Observe. Register to download your free copy. 

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