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Don’t turn off, turn down: Digital detox at work

The idea of digital detox isn’t new, but it is changing. Workplace technology and corporate culture are inextricably intertwined and their impact on employee health and well-being continues to evolve. Given the current physical-distancing and remote-working climate, we are finding it harder and harder to switch off. This article explains the impact of digital overload at work, and outlines a number of practical solutions to help you maximise the benefits that tech brings while minimising the potential damage to your health and wellness.  

Why do a digital detox?

Studies and statistics about the negative impact of ‘always-on’ culture, boundary-less work communications and social media are easily found.

Studies have shown that:

  • As mobile phone use increases, so does anxiety
  • Not using social media for a week has been shown in a study to life satisfaction
  • Receiving a notification is enough to severely distract us, even if we don’t reply.
  • Our own recent study, Digital Health Dilemma, found that:
  • 64% of employees are worried that they use their phone too much (for work)
  • 61% of employees agree that pressure to answer calls and emails outside of work makes them more stressed
  • 66% of employees admit that checking their phone for work-related messages can make them feel stressed (which they do before they go to bed (64%) and first thing in the morning (70%).

Related to this, we found that while the majority of employees agree that being able to work remotely would improve their quality of life, they say that it blurs the lines between work and home life.

It’s clear that overuse of technology in the workplace and a lack of workday discipline or boundaries are damaging our mental health as well as our productivity.

Recognising this signalled the emergence of the digital detox — unplugging from devices, coming offline and/or turning off notifications — which can help to improve physical and mental health,  improve sleep and even increase productivity.

Digital overload at work

We rely on technology for many things in our professional and personal lives, but if not managed carefully, they can distract us and cause us stress. The table below outlines some examples of many possibilities:

Personal - Family and friends communications

  • Email
  • Messengers (WhatsApp)
  • Text messages
  • Social media

Personal - ‘Life admin’: bills/ deliveries/ statements

  • Email
  • Text messages
  • Social media
  • Apps

Personal - Recreation

  • Games and other apps

Work - Clients and third-party communication

  • Email
  • Project management platforms (Basecamp, Trello, Scoro, Mavenlink)
  • Video conferencing (such as Zoom, Skype)
  • Messengers (Slack)
  • Social media (LinkedIn)

Work - Team and internal personnel communication

  • Email
  • Project management platforms (Basecamp, Trello, Scoro, Mavenlink)
  • Video conferencing (such as Zoom, Skype)
  • Social media
  • Internal messengers (such as Slack, Google Hangouts)

Work - Internal systems

  • HR systems
  • Time logging
  • Surveys and polls
  • Other tools (RSS feeds/alerts)
  • Internet of Things (IoT) devices and software
  • Antivirus

Work - Work

  • The internet

Work - Training and development

  • Webinars
  • Podcasts
  • YouTube
  • Apps

7 Solutions for a digital detox at work

There is no doubt that technological advancements – from the industrial revolution through to the Internet of Things — have enabled us to collaborate internationally and work remotely, improve our access to health and wellness support. Many of these have in turn helped us to improve our health, happiness and productivity as a result. It is also important to ensure we recognise the potentially negative impact to our health and wellness that digital technology can bring and understand how to manage or mitigate it.

A key challenge within a work context, is that we cannot always choose to ‘turn off’ completely. The key is to turn down, not turn off.

Here are some great ways to help you build a manageable working discipline, optimised to help you to continue to get the best out of technology for the benefit of your professional and personal life, while also protecting your well-being.

1. No-tech meetings

It’s not uncommon for people to checking devices during meetings. While taking notes on a laptop may not be a source of stress, it can hold many distractions of its own, from Googling around discussion topics to disruptive notifications from social media, email and other tools. While quantitative studies on the subject are limited, anecdotal reports suggest that multitasking is detrimental to productivity and that tech-free meetings can boosts productivity. Studies also suggest that not only do people think that device use in meetings is rude or unacceptable, but writing is better than typing for retention. Why not use a notebook and pen to help you detox?

Not everyone will respond well to a tech-free meeting request, but there are ways of ensuring buy-in and results:

  1. Establish ground rules BEFORE the meeting starts
  2. At the start of the meeting, politely re-confirm that the meeting has a ‘no-devices in the room’ policy (inform attendees that they may leave the room if they need to field a call or email)
  3. Communicate when there will be a break and when the meeting will end
  4. Set a good example.

2. One-screen limit

Jesse Fox, Head of Ohio State University’s Virtual Environment, Communication Technology and Online Research Lab says: “Multitasking is really bad for us. If you are focusing on a task and you get distracted, it takes several minutes to recalibrate our brains back to the original task.”

Using one screen at a time is a small step towards digital detox and is ideal for regular practice in the office. To do this, just keep your phone out of sight or off your desk and get up to take a few steps when you want to check your phone. When you’re done, put it away and sit down again. For many, digital detox will be a culture shock, but it can offer many rewards. It might be useful to take note of your productivity and emotions before putting one-screen practise into place and then again at intervals in the hours, days and weeks that follow.

3. Screen breaks

75% of employees in our study said that restricting screen time in the office would help them to manage their mental health better. This fits with studies that suggest screen breaks can lead to a huge release of stress as well as aiding posture and make us more alert. If you’re worried that taking breaks will make you less productive, research has also found that the most productive people work for 52 minutes and then take breaks for up to 17 minutes. This may not be ideal for those with demanding jobs, but the UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) suggests that short, frequent breaks are better than less frequent longer breaks, so try taking a 5-10-minute break after 50-60 minutes.

4. Tech-free window

Ring-fence a time during which you will not use digital technology at all. You might use the time to read a book or something you’ve printed from the web, or even schedule a face-to-face meeting with someone, as and when possible.

For many, technology is essential to every aspect of our working life. If you need to use technology, you might just choose to un-plug for a whole hour while you take your lunch — no phone, no emails, no social media interaction.

If this is not possible, define a no-notifications window (as below).

5. No notifications

Connectivity has brought new efficiency to communication, but it has also reduced our ability to focus, which in turn reduces our productivity. 76% of employees feel that reduced or restricted out-of-hours technology use could help them manage their physical health better if supported by their employer, and email is a key factor.

Depending on your job, you might be able to switch-off during mornings to focus on deliverables, or even for an hour a day. You might choose a single day, or even a few hours each week when you turn off notifications.

Ensure you let your colleagues and relevant clients know, and turn on your out-of-office response with a relevant message. For example, ‘Hi there, I am not checking my emails between 1-2pm each day. I will read your message after 2pm, but if it is urgent, please call me/my colleague [NAME] on [phone number]’.

Employees are increasingly feeling the pressure to check work emails outside of work. Our survey found that 62% of employees agree that this makes them more stressed. If you do nothing else, try to stop checking emails when you’re at home — draw a line between your work life and your home life. Again, set up an auto-response message to manage expectations and provide a contact in the event an urgent situation arises.

6. Digital diet

Why not create a weekly digital detox diet plan, for example:

  • Monday: Unsubscribe from all unwanted emails
  • Tuesday: Don’t look at your phone until you get to work
  • Wednesday: Don’t look at your phone during lunch
  • Thursday:  Define a two-hour period during which you don’t check emails (see no-notification plan, above)
  • Friday: Stay off social media for the entire day
  • Saturday: Do not check work emails or social media
  • Sunday: Do not check work emails or social media

Or you could try Forbes’ 30-day digital detox.

Even short periods of meditation and mindfulness can aid digital detox and help you de-stress at work, so consider adding short sessions into your digital diet. Read our step-by-step guide to meditation at work.

Consider adding a short outdoor walk to your diet to give you some analogue stimulation. If you can, you might do some exercise at lunchtime. Read our article on workday workouts for inspiration on how you can inject a little physical activity into your day.

7. Buddy system

Whatever you choose to do, don’t do it alone. Doctors know that people succeed at giving up smoking better if they have a ‘buddy’, someone to quit with. Similarly, detoxing at work can be helped if you have a colleague who you can discuss plans with and support with its challenges.

If your company supports digital detox as part of a strong digital culture, it may help in finding an appropriate buddy.

Digital detox during the global pandemic

The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has increased our reliance on technology — especially communication — from social media and email to conference/video calls.

Recent research shows that 58% of HR managers fear that that the mental health impact of working from home due to COVID-19 is so great that they will lose staff, who could be forced to take time out of work due to burnout. The study introduces the idea of ‘e-Presenteeism’: where employees feel that they should be online and available as much as possible, even out of hours or if they’re unwell. 75% think e-Presenteeism could negatively impact employees’ mental health by causing additional stress, burnout and anxiety.

As such, it is more important than ever for businesses to support employees to build a healthy work routine which limits the damaging effects of digital overload in the workplace.

You may also like: Aetna’s ‘always-on’ antidote: A guide to stress-management, tech overload and work-life balance support services.

For more advice on remote working during the pandemic you can read articles in our resource hub.

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