Technology offers us a smarter way of working. Whereas before we were desk-bound at a fixed location from 9 to 5, we can now access our work from anywhere. Anyone can reach us at any time, and vice versa. We have evolved into a highly mobile society, working faster and smarter, ever more responsive to customer needs and industry shifts. We would be crazy not to use the great new options technology offers us to be smarter . . . wouldn’t we?
A recent Flux Trends presentation by Dion Chang suggests we need to strike a new balance between our supposedly smart new ways of working and the not-so-smart new disease it has brought with it: digital burnout.
Symptoms include low productivity, inability to cope with routine, constant tiredness and inability to control emotions. Chang says digital addiction is now being recognised as an actual disease. Psychiatrists in Singapore are pushing for its formal recognition as a mental illness and in China there are 300+ digital addiction centres.
Unlike old-fashioned burnout, digital burnout cannot be solved with a holiday. It needs a new approach to digital devices and their usage. Employers also need to develop their awareness of digital burnout so they can consider wellness measures to prevent absenteeism and illness.
How did things get so bad?
According to Chang, we live in two parallel universes: a physical realm, where we spend less time than previously, and a virtual world where we spend more time. New research indicates that the average person spends more time on their devices than they do sleeping: eight hours and 41 minutes a day. The average user checks their mobile device 150 times and launches at least 10 apps a day.
We switch between online and offline mode with few boundaries between our real and digital worlds. As a result of this always-on/always-connected lifestyle, we no longer have time to reflect or daydream. Consequently, we no longer think original thoughts.
Digital burnout has effectively rewired our brains into permanent omni-tasking mode. We’re incapable of focusing on just one task at a time. Chang quoted a study by Stanford University, which showed that multi-tasking leads to less productivity, not more. Apparently our brains can hold only five to nine items in short-term memory. If we try to hold more, the information is not stored in long-term memory and we’re unable to recall it.
How do we fix this?
Initiatives by large corporates include:
· Volkswagen and BMW don’t allow employees to access their e-mail accounts outside work hours.
· Chrysler allows employees to delete all e-mails received while on leave.
· Goldman Sacs is urging junior employees not to work on weekends.
· The Unlimited Group has e-mail free Wednesday to encourage face-to-face collaboration and conversation among employees.
Chang talked about the concept of digital detox, which Silicon Valley is now introducing. A number of rehabilitation centres are popping up, including “Tech Cold Turkey” and “Restart”.
According to Annie McKee and Dick Massimilian*, “Mindfulness is the capacity to live in full awareness of what we ourselves experience, of other people, and of the world in which we live. It means being aware of and attending to ourselves, the people in our lives and our environment.”
Mindfulness means being fully present when we are engaged in work or conversation; focusing on one task at a time and resisting the urge to flit between different activities. It involves resisting the urge to use our digital devices as social cruxes when we are forced to wait or do nothing.
Allowing for downtime without the distraction of technology, even for just a few minutes a day, leads to increased self-awareness, social interaction and creative insights.
Try these three simple methods to bring more mindfulness into your life:
1) Next time you’re in a meeting – whether business or social – don’t look at the time or your phone. Give your full attention to the person you are with.
2) Stop using devices an hour before retiring to bed. Research shows that over-exposure to laptops and TVs before bed actually stimulates the brain.**
3) Take walks in nature and leave your cell phone in the car or at home. Take in the scenery around you through your eyes instead of through your devices.
There are also apps that help to address digital burnout: Moment for iPhone and Break Free for Android, both of which allow users to set usage thresholds and block access when limits are reached.
In reality, we have to exist in a parallel universe. We cannot completely disconnect from our digital lives. We do, however, need to try to strike some sort of balance.
Chantal Breytenbach is head of internal research at Tuesday Consulting, and Craig Spalding is a director at Tuesday Consulting