What happens when we can’t switch off? The impact of digital devices on our work life balance

Paul Barrett, Head of Wellbeing, Bank Workers Charity works with Business in the Community as a Wellbeing partner. Following the publication of their latest white paper At the crossroads – The need for a digital rebalance, Paul explores the relationship we have with our digital devices and the impact on our work-life balance and offers a compelling case for effective digital wellbeing strategies.
Whether it’s the threat to jobs posed by AI or the misuse of personal data, digital technology is rarely out of the headlines. Recent controversies in the national press have focused on the impact of digital technology on young people and particularly around the negative impact of social media on mental health. But more attention is also being paid to the impact of the technology in the workplace and there is a growing body of evidence, particularly from the field of neuroscience, that there may be a downside in terms of its impact on employee wellbeing and business performance.
The Bank Workers Charity’s new whitepaper, At the crossroads – The need for a digital rebalance, explores how recent research has drawn attention to how the way we are using digital technology may be damaging employees’ work-life balance, harming their wellbeing and undermining their work performance.
In the workplace, constant interruptions caused by incoming emails and notifications damage our capacity for focus and concentration1. Reading from screens has been found to compromise our ability to comprehend and digest complex content2. Meanwhile, neuroscience has comprehensively exploded the myth of multitasking, which remains a bedrock competency in many workplaces. Research from University of Michigan suggests it reduces productivity by more than 40%3.
It’s been suggested that the fragmented work pattern associated with digital technology is resulting in something called “continuous partial attention”4.  The term originated with former Apple executive Linda Stone, who used it to describe the state of mind that has evolved as a consequence of the endless stream of digital demands on our attention. We end up on constant alert, checking what’s coming in but never devoting our full attention to anything. But there is a cost to this. Over the long term, this state of being on permanent alert stimulates the creation of adrenaline and cortisone, part of the stress response, which is costly for our bodies to maintain.
There are other ways that the technology can affect our wellbeing. Whilst it has undoubtedly facilitated flexible working, digital technology is also felt to have worsened employees’ work-life balance with 61% of managers feeling that it has made it harder for them to switch off from work5. There is also evidence that our use of technology outside work is having an adverse impact on our sleep6. We now have a much better understanding of how important getting the right quality and quality of sleep is to our wellbeing, and it isn’t just teenagers that are experiencing a sleep deficit.

All of this research is not lost on businesses who, in growing numbers, are taking steps to ameliorate the negative affect of technology at work. The scale of interest in this issue can be seen in an Economist report from 20187 which found that, of 500 senior HR executives from global organisations, 70% felt that initiatives focusing on the impact of digital consumption were important, as were polices that promote digital wellbeing. Moreover, 50% felt they had implemented such measures well or very well. This whitepaper includes some innovative examples of the ways in which businesses are now engaging with this issue.

Digital technology is not going to go away, nor should it. The advantages in our personal and our work lives are evident for all to see. But there is a need to pause for thought and question whether it’s time to reframe our relationship with our devices; to use the technology in ways that maximise the benefits for employees and for businesses but that eliminate the downside.

To find out more about digital wellbeing and how businesses are addressing it, download the Bank Workers Charity’s new whitepaper At the crossroads – The need for a digital rebalance

1. The Guardian (2018), The lost art of concentration: being distracted in a digital world, available at https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/oct/14/the-lost-art-of-con...

2. UKSG (2015), Screen vs. paper: what is the difference for reading and learning?' available at https://insights.uksg.org/articles/10.1629/uksg.236/

3. Robinson (n.d.) The Brain and Productivity Drain of Unbounded Devices, Interruptions, and Information Overload, available at https://www.worktolive.info/blog/information-overload-how-to-stop-out-of...

4. Brinson (2018) Continuous Partial Attention: How Technology Is Rewiring Our Brains, available at https://www.diygenius.com/continuous-partial-attention/

5. Henley Business School (2017) Technostress: mobile technology  in the modern workplace, available at https://assets.henley.ac.uk/defaultUploads/PDFs/news/Knowledge-in-Action...

6. Ofcom (2016) Communications Market Report 2016, available at https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0024/26826/cmr_uk_2016.pdf

7. The Economist Intelligence Unit (2018) Doing Wellbeing Well: An assessment of health and wellbeing programmes at multinational companies, available at https://www.adeccogroupfoundation.org/includes/downloads/doing-wellbeing-well.pdf