What should we do about digital fatigue?


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The UK head of KPMG Bill Michael suggested told employees last week they should stop moaning’ and ‘playing the victim card, comments that have contributed in his resignation. His remarks run counter to the consensus that lockdown and particularly digital fatigue are causing a real malaise among employees working from home. Brian Kropp argues that it’s time for companies to step back from video conference calls and think creatively about collaboration.

Digital fatigue – referring to mental exhaustion from overuse of digital technologies – is by no means a new phenomenon. However, over the past year, it has become an overwhelming contributing factor in poor mental health and wellbeing in employees.

Since the start of the pandemic, screen time has increased dramatically as employees have joined endless Zoom meetings and felt pressure to work harder than ever before while remote. But outside of work, employees are also having to use devices to check the news, connect with loved-ones, and even to relax and unwind.

Another contributing factor in the current environment is the fact that employees are reluctant to take time off, and instead holding onto their leave in the hope of using it once lockdowns are lifted. The irony is that time off is even more crucial during these anxious times

This digital fatigue has coincided with unprecedented challenges from the pandemic, and major political uncertainty and social justice movements across the world. Employees are emotionally drained and at least 55% have reported dreading another day on the job. Businesses cannot afford to ignore this problem.

There is a variety of ways to tackle the issue, some may involve the following:

  • Enforcing a temporary camera-off policy
  • The happiness-index of walking meetings
  • Baked in screen breaks to calendars
  • The imperative for variety

What kind of impact is winter in lockdown having on digital fatigue?

There is no doubt that lockdown in winter is very different to the lockdown we experienced in summer and is contributing to an increase in digital fatigue.

In the summer months, we were more likely to step away from our screens to enjoy the longer days and brighter weather. However, there was also a big psychological difference in that the pandemic was new, and we were hopeful there would be a rapid return to normal.

In the current lockdown, employees are spending more hours looking at screens due to the dark, cold weather outside. The roll-out of the vaccine programme has given some optimism, but it is arguably resulting in increased screen time as people check for updates.

The problem we have is that companies have been slow to move off a crisis-footing and adjust processes to actually support employees in what has become their new reality.

What can businesses to do to reduce digital fatigue and support employees?

Businesses need to find ways to help employees break the monotony of being in front of a computer all day and there are a number of options they could explore.

One of the biggest factors behind digital fatigue is the amount of time employees are spending on video conferencing calls. We are seeing some companies trying to tackle this by having audio-only meetings on certain days, meaning employees don’t need to be staring at a screen. This tactic can be effective when combined with encouragement to go for a walk or do another activity such as yoga or cooking.

Another contributing factor in the current environment is the fact that employees are reluctant to take time off, and instead holding onto their leave in the hope of using it once lockdowns are lifted. The irony is that time off is even more crucial during these anxious times. Businesses should encourage employees to use holiday, or even think about rolling-out blanket mental health days.

Employees are also suffering from the pressure to appear always-on while working remotely. Leaders should actively encourage flexibility in the hours people work, giving clear permission for employees to take longer lunch breaks or finish early when they need to.

Driving productivity and maintaining wellbeing is not a zero-sum game. By encouraging flexibility, time off and respect of mental health, businesses can energise employees and better equip them to perform in these challenging times.

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