Maintaining digital wellbeing in the time of coronavirus


The weeks of lockdown highlighted the massive importance that technology now has in our lives, personal and professional. But, as Laura Willis explains, our increasing reliance on technology has to come with an awareness of, and support for, its potential impact on our health and wellbeing too.

When lockdown was first rumoured back in March this year one thing became obvious – our technology was going to play an invaluable role in helping us to get through the pandemic. As we were asked to stay indoors and minimise all contact people turned to their smartphones, laptops and tablets to find the connection, support and peace of mind they would need to survive the crisis. Thank goodness for digital technology.

But as people started to experience the changes to their digital behaviour one thing was at the forefront of the Shine Offline teams’ minds: the need to encourage and support positive digital habits.

If we allow habit, anxiety and reflex to drive our tech use we can easily overload and overwhelm with negative consequences for our wellbeing, work life balance, focus and relationships.”

The potential dark side of our digital revolution

As someone who has numerous strategies to manage my potential for digital overload, I started to feel the pull to my smartphone in a way I hadn’t since before we launched Shine Offline. I was suddenly checking news feeds, Whatsapp for updates from family and friends.

I brought my work devices home planning to base myself there to keep the business going. With these changes in my behaviour panic set in and the migraines started – a clear sign that I needed to adjust my behaviour and get myself back on track. If I was struggling to use my devices in a healthy and sustainable way in this constantly changing situation how would other people cope?

More screen time equals more control required

In the work we do at Shine Offline we have found that although the vast majority of people really value the benefits their technology brings to their working and personal lives, many struggle with feeling they are in control of their technology. After experiencing our learning 95% of participants say they feel empowered to make positive changes to their relationship devices which tells me that most people feel the need for improvement.

Our vision is for a world where people feel truly in control of their own attention and turn towards their digital technology to use it with consciousness, purpose and intent. This ethos hasn’t changed with Covid-19 but rather the urgency and need has been magnified with our increased screen time. Our digital technology has allowed us to stay connected and keep going throughout this unprecedented situation. But if we allow habit, anxiety and reflex to drive our tech use we can easily overload and overwhelm with negative consequences for our wellbeing, work life balance, focus and relationships.

Our homes are now our workplaces

The biggest change that has happened for businesses is a move to homeworking which many organisations are now considering maintaining to keep business overheads to a minimum and give people back their commuting time. This is great in a flexible world where people have the digital technology to allow them to do their jobs anywhere but it comes with challenges.

We ran a digital wellbeing and management programme for one of the ‘big four’ in 2019. As a business that truly embraces flexibility most of the participants had some degree of autonomy within their work with a number being predominantly home-based. Many were finding it difficult to switch off and put boundaries in place around their digital technology usage. “Guilt” was one of the biggest issues as those who weren’t physically present in the office felt they needed to be digitally present and responsive at all times. Through the programme they were encouraged to create their own rules around their digital behaviour and communicate these to colleagues and other stakeholders.

Adjust digital expectations to survive the ‘new normal’

As more businesses encourage their staff to work from home the lines of communication around digital availability need to be open. A more decentralised team will mean leaders will face challenges of adjusting their management style from command and control to one with trust and empowerment at its core. And employees must own the change and make the appropriate adjustments to their digital behaviour to make sure it is working for them, they aren’t available all of the time, they respect their own rest periods and create appropriate rituals to ensure their personal time is protected.

Digital presenteeism

Shine Offline research has found that 93% of people say distractions from their digital technology impairs their ability to do their jobs. Now that more people are working remotely without their colleagues beside them it could be argued that attention management should be easier, managing your to do list and getting the job done when you have only yourself in your direct environment. However “digital presenteeism” where people feel the need to be digitally seen all day and respond immediately to digital communications is being experienced by many.

Employees need to be encouraged to take control of their own attention and know when it is appropriate to go offline to focus their minds. Also, personal notifications have historically been distracting for many and creating rules around when you are going to allow yourself to access news, social media and other personal comms will help people to work at their best and focus their minds.

The ‘Zoom fatigue’ phenomenon

Reliance on conference calls to stay in touch with colleagues and clients has become essential – since March Zoom has reported 200 million daily users up from 10 million in December. This has been a saving grace but again comes with downsides. We need to embrace this technology whilst understanding the most effective way to use it to get the most out of exchanges and ensure we have time to get on with our work.

Video calls are found to be a more draining way to meet with colleagues as our brains need to work harder to process information and work out visual cues that we rely on in analogue exchanges. Seeing our own image can be distracting and there can be promises of intimacy that we often feel we don’t experience.

Appreciating that conference calling can be difficult for those who are the less forthright in a team will help managers to facilitate online meetings, capping the number of attendees when appropriate and chairing calls. Employees who feel they are spending an excessive amount of time in virtual meetings need to be encouraged to voice concerns and have the confidence to ask to step out when required. And all virtual meeting attendees should habitually turn off all other digital distractions such as phone and inbox to help them be truly present and get the most out of the time on the call.

Many people we have been working with since lockdown started have reported a stronger pull to their devices, an increased desire to look at the news and social media for reassurance and answers.”

A healthy, balanced approach will help us to thrive

Covid-19 forced us to increase our screen time to get through the pandemic. Data from productivity app RescueTime reported users in the US spending an average of 56 minutes extra every day on their devices whilst Italian desktop device use had increased by 21%. The abundant, ever-presence of our digital technology, especially when there is a sudden increase in reliance on it, needs to be managed.

Our research has shown that, pre-Coronavirus, 84% of people claimed that their digital technology caused them stress and overwhelm. Many people we have been working with since lockdown started have reported a stronger pull to their devices, an increased desire to look at the news and social media for reassurance and answers. Being mindful of the potential to feed bad habits of constant checking, the impact of too much news, and the panic and misinformation that social media can provide is more important than ever.

Self-awareness and kindness is key

The pandemic has magnified many aspects of life and it could be argued that those of us who had good digital awareness and strategies to manage our digital habits pre-Covid-19 were able to put these to the test in a situation where we needed our devices more than ever. Our relationships with our inboxes, social media feeds, Whatsapp groups and Slack channels are complicated ones though and so constant evaluation and asking “is my digital helping me at the moment or hindering me” is vital.

As someone who lives and breathes digital wellbeing and management, I struggled back in late March as my anxiety around the uncertainty of lockdown situation increased and I was forced to start working from home – something that triggered a period of severely poor mental health in 2013. By bringing some self-awareness and kindness to my situation and how I was feeling around my technology I have managed stay on course.

Every day is different though and I know I am not alone in needing to constantly adjust and adapt how I am existing. If businesses, managers and their employees bring the same attitudes to their digital behaviour at this time and moving forward we can ensure our devices play an enhancing role and help us to continue to do our best and thrive in what is likely to be an ever-changing future for many.

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