How the digital deluge is impacting wellbeing

As we become increasingly dependent on technology for managing both work and leisure, have we fallen into addiction? How is this 'digital deluge' affecting our health?

The average Brit spends more time on their smartphone every day (119 minutes) than with their partner (a mere 97 minutes). It’s a pretty shocking statistic, but one that sadly isn’t too hard to believe and one that doesn’t even take laptops or tablets into account. We have become a nation of technology addicts.

Just as it’s affecting our personal lives, technology – and email in particular – has also impacted on the way we work. Most people would argue it has made us more efficient and productive, but it has also made us more likely to check our work emails late at night or while on holiday. Is it any surprise that there is a growing feeling that the ‘always on’ culture created by technology may be detrimental to employee health and wellbeing? 

There is an emerging body of research to back this up. A survey of more than 2,000 UK employees by Microsoft found more than half (55%) say they experience “information overload” at work, while 52% admit to looking at work emails just 15 minutes before going to bed. A separate survey by software firm Projectplace found 63% regularly work evenings and weekends to keep on top of things, despite 79% saying work/life balance is important to them.

Dave Coplin is chief envisioning officer at Microsoft and author of The Rise of the Humans, which examines how people can cope with what he terms the “digital deluge”.

“It’s a massive problem; there are mental health issues and productivity issues, all related to the prevalence of a world with too much information,” he says. “But what really makes this different is the pervasive nature of our mobile devices now. We have them with us from the minute we wake up to the minute we go to sleep.” He believes people have failed to adapt to the potential benefits technology offers, simply working harder rather than smarter.

Helen Ives is vice president of people at Peer 1 Hosting and a qualified business psychologist. It’s a problem she’s intensely aware of and believes it’s yet to be taken seriously compared to more tangible health issues. “We need to start taking care of our mental health, in just the same way as we’re being asked to take care of our physical health,” she says.

“We are definitely putting ourselves at risk with the way we’re working currently. The mental, or neuropsychological, response that happens in your brain when the little ping goes off on your Blackberry is the same response that you would experience if you were under physical threat. It means you’re in this heightened state all of the time and you don’t ever have time to switch your brain off. That affects your decision-making, how you feel about your work and relationships outside of work.”

Worryingly, we may only be at the beginning of this, believes Christine Grant, occupational psychologist and senior lecturer at Coventry University’s Centre for Research in Psychology, Behaviour and Achievement. “This issue of ‘always on’ could be a ticking time bomb, as the younger generation may be even more switched on by residing in the cyber world through social media,” she warns. “Older generations tend to dip in and out, using technology more practically for work.”

The consequences of this infiltration of technology and work into personal lives could have serious implications for both employers and employees. The most obvious danger is an increase in stress. A recent CIPD survey found the proportion of people saying their job required them to work “very hard” increased from 32% in 1992 to 45% in 2012, despite the fact that the number of hours officially worked has actually declined.

“People feel under more pressure now; there’s less downtime and more conflicting demands,” says Mark Beatson, chief economist at the CIPD. “A very simple example of that is if you go back five or 10 years when you sent something to the printer you might have three or four minutes to clear your brain or go and have a cup of tea. Now we deal with emails in that time. If you’re not careful it can feel very pressurised.”

For employers this could manifest as less productive staff and higher levels of attrition. Research by Unum attempted to measure this, putting the cost to UK businesses as a result at £101 billion, and around £2.2 million for a 100-employee business. “An inability to meet employees’ needs can cause stress and burnout, making them much more likely to leave,” believes Peter O’Donnell, CEO of Unum.

There’s also the potential of legal claims from burnt-out employees, suggests Suzanne McMinn, HR director at Workplace Law. “There is the potential for a clear breach of the Working Time Directive in relation to the amount of hours an employee is working,” she warns. She advises putting controls in place to curb excessive working hours, including instructing employees not to send or pick up emails, calls or messages outside core working hours.

HR clearly has an important role to play in shaping what is expected of employees, and identifying and acting on any issues that arise. There is certainly room for improvement here. Research by AXA PPP Healthcare suggests 73% of employees who have had a mental health condition don’t feel comfortable speaking to their employer about it, while 25% of employees with a mental health issue feel they have not received adequate support.

“For too long, organisations have left the issue of mobile contact and availability as a grey area and benefited from extra time and effort without recognising the contribution or what the impact might be on employees,” says Mandy Rutter, a workplace psychologist at wellbeing organisation Validium. “It’s not enough to say ‘we don’t expect you to have your phone turned on out of hours, but it’s up to you’. That only results in uncertainty and pressure.”

One way HR can help, believes Ives, is by encouraging employees to find work patterns that best suit their lifestyles, although she doesn’t believe this should extend to putting controls in place. “It’s a little naive to tell people to turn off their phone and not to check emails,” she says. “That won’t work for a lot of people and will put them in a heightened state of stress, because they won’t feel in control any more. It’s more important to say ‘let’s understand what a healthy work/life balance looks like to you and shape your work so that you can build downtime into your day’.”

Molly Dyer is personnel manager at software consultancy Box UK. Most of its staff are based in-house and the business offers flexibility around working hours. But it also seeks to ensure they do not end up working excessive hours.

“Our core hours end at 7pm and we encourage people not to work past that, unless there’s a deadline or something else to consider,” she says. “It works both ways: there are times when people need to focus on the business, but then there are others when we tell them it’s time to go home and think about other things.”

HR should also ensure individuals take regular breaks from technology, either within or away from the office environment altogether. “This could take the form of technology-free days at work or company away days to remote retreats, to boost creativity and face-to-face communication,” suggests O’Donnell. “Or it could see the introduction of meditation pods in the workplace, with employees using isolated spaces for individual focus and concentration.”

Regulating employees’ behaviour in the office is one thing; but often staff get embroiled in work issues through technology when they’re at home or in a non-work setting. Coplin gives an example from his own personal experience: when he found himself checking work emails while waiting for his son to clean his teeth before reading him a bedtime story.

“As soon as you look at your work email in a personal context mentally you’re right back at work, with all the stress and the baggage,” he says. “The best case is my son gets a story from a slightly distracted dad but if I get an email that really upsets me I will deprioritise my son. I don’t mean to do that but it’s because I’ve chosen to drift into that.” His advice is very simple: before reaching for a phone or tablet, consider what you should be focusing on. This isn’t just about home life either, he adds; it’s all too common to see people in work meetings being distracted by trying to clear emails.

More generally, HR should also be looking to influence the broader culture of an organisation, so individuals do not feel they are expected to be available out of hours. “The key here is to manage expectations and ensure that boundaries are clearly defined and understood by all involved, including work supervisors, family and friends,” says Grant. Getting the support of line managers is vital here, she adds, as they can either be very good or very poor role models.

This has been a particular focus for human capital management services business ADP UK, which has run workshops with managers to help them understand the issues and identify when individuals may be struggling to switch off.

“One of the signs might be people who are online the whole time or employees who are regularly emailing in the evenings or at weekends, or when they’re on holiday,” says UK HR director Annabel Jones. Leaders must also set the right example, she adds, by not sending emails outside working hours or while on holiday.

Yet HR can only go so far in this, suggests Beatson. “[You] can set policies to manage expectations about what is acceptable and what should be discouraged, but what happens when individual managers just don’t follow that?” he asks. “It’s not always clear how effective HR is at challenging that. Ultimately, it’s about making sure that people’s performance is assessed against values that the organisation wants to promote. HR can’t do it on its own.”