Last reviewed 18 June 2020

Since lockdown, our internet use has soared. Some of this increase is due to more working from home; other aspects will be related to our need to keep up with the news and stay connected. Here, Laura King considers how to ensure the wellbeing of employees in an “always on” culture.

Since the lockdown entered force, our daily amount of screen time and use of the internet have both sky-rocketed. And it’s no wonder — as more of us work from home in relative isolation, we are increasingly reliant on technology to stay connected and keep ourselves entertained.

Even before lockdown, we lived in a hyper-connected society. Studies have found that the average UK adult spends more time on their screen than they do asleep, and a 2018 report by Ofcom reported that around 40% of adults look at their phone within five minutes of going to bed and getting up. However, although technology can certainly have a positive effect on our lives, it has also been demonstrated to negatively affect our mental and physical health.

For example, the 2017 Stress in America survey, conducted by the American Psychological Association, found that more than 40% of those surveyed constantly check their emails, texts or social media accounts. A fifth described technology as a source of stress, with “constant checkers” experiencing more stress than those who monitor their online accounts less frequently.

Do we need a digital detox?

Pre-lockdown, various experts had advocated the use of digital detoxes to try to reduce the stress of being constantly connected. However, although a full-blown digital detox may be one solution for those few people able to completely isolate, for many this is simply not practical. More than ever, we need technology to stay in touch with loved ones or to connect in to work.

Our increased internet use is testament to this new way of life. However, as with most things, there is always room for improvement, and with stress levels, according to an Institute for Employment Studies survey, rising in homeworkers, managing our relationship with technology is one way in which we can take back control. Instead of abandoning technology, perhaps we simply need to re-think our relationship with it.

Re-appraising work–life balance

Work–life balance is just that: delineating energy, time and focus between working and leisure time. Now, with the lockdown having introduced profound changes in how and where we are working, the question is how to encourage a work–life balance during extended periods of self-isolation, where our sense of place and use of technology means that these boundaries are likely to become increasingly blurred.

In reality, many of the ways to check staff have a healthy work–life balance are similar to before.

For example, it is important to ask team members if there is anything that they are finding difficult, and managers should also be mindful of behaviours that might indicate staff are not coping, eg emails sent late at night or signs of stress. However, as with all change, adaptation is key, and employers may want to re-appraise wellbeing strategies, including how staff engage with technology.

5 ways to improve your digital work–life balance when working from home

Creating work–life balance is often about demarcation, but technology rarely respects this. Cloud-based software, mobile computing and the internet have removed the importance of a physical location for defining work. Although this is not a new phenomenon, the Covid-19 crisis has certainly made its affects more acute, and for more people.

However, despite the apparent omnipresence of technology and new-found employment of the kitchen table as a desk, there are still ways to create balance.

  1. Encourage staff to maintain a routine with a clear structure to the day. Habits that “start” and “finish” the working day will help delineate between work and everything else. Keeping a good routine will also establish positive expectations with work colleagues, as well as with other people that employees share their space with.

  2. Help staff to find a defined room or space to work. This will mean that they have a clear delineation of where “work” happens. Consider only having work technology in that space.

  3. Try to group together communications. Working from home will mean that personal communication can easily infiltrate into work time. Suggest that staff set aside time to check personal messages, and conversely, not check work messages during downtime. In a similar vein, staff can put any work apps on their personal phone or computer into a separate folder to create virtual boundaries for “work” and “play”.

  4. Suggest people map out what they are doing for the day. If there is a lull or break in work, it is easy to slip into mindless checking of news or social media, especially when it is crucial to keep on top of what is going on. Linking the day with clear timings or objectives can help avoid passive internet use.

  5. Use breaks from the screen to move about. While we may be missing out on our cycle to work, lunchtime walk, or daily stair-climbing, we should still look to incorporate exercise into our day. Display Screen Equipment regulations suggest taking regular breaks to prevent eye strain, so encourage staff to use this time to move around as well as taking a mini technology detox.

4 ways to promote digital wellbeing

Establishing a healthy relationship with technology is also one way of managing stress levels and helping improve wellbeing. Some ways to do this are as follows.

  1. Ask: is it helpful? Ask whether what you are doing is useful — passively scrolling through a newsfeed is not always a positive way of engaging with technology.

  2. Set limits for news updates. Try to restrict news intake to set times of the day, and if looking for information on the coronavirus pandemic, limit searches to sites that can offer reliable information, such as the UK Government website.

  3. Turn off notifications. Notifications are a notorious distraction, especially when trying to focus on blocks of work. It can sometimes also be useful to place your phone face down — or in another room altogether — to avoid any temptation to take a look.

  4. Try to have phone free times. Although the situation is constantly changing, being connected all the time is rarely helpful, and so it can be useful to schedule in screen-free time, eg when eating.

Conclusion

Technology is both a blessing and a curse. While it has allowed us to stay in touch with loved ones and work in self-isolation, it can also be a cause of stress — especially in an environment where we can have constant access to news and updates.

Before Covid-19, many employers will have already been promoting a positive work–life balance to their staff, and the current situation should not change this ethos. However, given our dependency on technology, employers should consider how to encourage the digital wellbeing of staff.