Digital Burnout – Flexible working is not all flat whites and short days

Andrew Pope at the Boye 18 conference in Aarhus, Denmark

Andrew Pope at the Boye 18 conference in Aarhus, Denmark

I’m down to 45 unread emails. I can manage this. Oh shit, here come the Slack notifications. But I’m ok, I’m working flexibly. Once I’ve picked the kids up, I can rush back and go through them. Except that there’s that meeting that I can’t make when I’m on the school run, and my boss will contact me with any actions I’ve missed.

But I can catch up with these on the weekend, right? It’s the flexible modern workplace so I’m ok. I’m in control. I’m not too stressed. Yet. Really, I am not.

Recognise any of this? While today’s workplace does offer us flexibility so that we don’t have to always be in the office, it does place a considerable stress on us as we try to keep pace with the digital workload. 

Whilst moderating a recent Future Workplace Peer Group, we discussed the topic of digital burnout, and significantly, learned just how serious this can be when we’re never ‘off’. 

Human stress cycles, as explained in this Harvard Medical Review article are in response to specific events. Events such as the threat of an oncoming out of control child on a unicorn scooter: Our stress reaction helps us to jump out of the way before we have really figured out what is happening. It’s an automatic response to save us from danger. And then, at some stage, the stress event ends. The level of chemicals released into our body in response to stress then begin to fall and we can eventually move on, assuming we avoided the scooter.

Digital stress, however, is different. There is no natural end to the stress cycle as per hazards or threats in the environment. The stress keeps building, albeit initially at lower levels than the stress of a significant danger. But it builds and does not end. This can lead to physical and psychological health impacts: burnout. And it can be hard to recognise the signs until it’s too late.

If there is no natural end to stress, it’s necessary therefore to impose some controls ourselves. Ways of reducing the burden and providing some respite from the continuous flashing led on our phones. Here are some measures we can all adopt:

  • Disable push notifications for work channels. Check emails and other channels when it’s the right time for you. If it’s important, they can phone you.  

  • Set an out of office policy that establishes the right expectation, ideally one that automatically deletes incoming emails whilst anyone is on leave. Way back in 2014, Daimler introduced such a policy whereby all holiday emails are deleted. 

  • Managers need to set explicit boundaries on when is not appropriate to respond. Make it clear that your staff don’t have to reply immediately, during evenings, on weekends or even at all! Do we ever do our best work on email? Save the urgency for the phone. 

  • Compose but don’t send emails on weekends. Even if we don’t expect replies to those Sunday evening emails we compose on the couch once the weekend’s chores are done, it does influence others. Some may feel compelled to respond, or just that it’s convenient then. This can then set a new norm as these behaviours influence others, and before we know it, we are all emailing each other on a Sunday evening. And for no reason!

  • Plan in technology free time during your day. Go for a walk without your phone. This can be the most valuable time you spend during your working day: both lowering stress and importantly, giving us time to think rather than just reacting. I honestly come up with my best ideas when I am in the woods spending time away from the machines.

Lastly, there is one simple thing that we can all do. If you are not reading this on your phone, it’s probably somewhere very close. Is it on the table in front of you? Now think about when you are meeting someone, or with family. Is it also on the table? Out in the open saying “Hi! I’m more important than the conversation we’re having. When I go off, everything stops!”. When we’re with people, have the phone out of sight. Introduce habits that de-emphasize the importance of the phone and being always on. 

Changing habits changes our expectations. It’s not often our managers expectations that tie us to our devices, it’s mostly ours. 

Saying no isn’t easy, but we can do it, and it becomes easier the more we are.