If our relationship with technology was under the spotlight before the pandemic, it’s nothing compared to after 15 months of remote working. The blurring of the line between our home and work lives has made us more aware of how our emails and smartphone notifications permeate every part of how we live. People Management spoke to digital wellbeing expert, best-selling author and founder of Consciously Digital Dr Anastasia Dedyukhina about how tech is affecting us – and what we can do about it.
What is digital wellbeing?
Technology is playing an increasingly important role, but we’re never actually taught how to treat our devices. The pandemic was a perfect example. People were told: ‘You work from home. Here’s a computer.’ Then people started feeling fatigued and weren’t able to separate work from home life.
Research shows that on average, people in the UK are spending two hours longer working, logging off at 8pm as opposed to 6pm – which may sound great for an employer. But other research has found when people don’t have proper separation from their devices, they’re more likely to feel stressed. And companies are more likely to experience longer-term consequences, whether it’s healthcare costs, presenteeism or absenteeism, or loss of productivity.
You’ve talked about how technology can act like an attention black hole. How does this affect our work?
It’s partly about distractions. There’s very good research by Gloria Mark from the University of California, Irvine, who looked at how often knowledge workers switch tasks. Five years ago they were switching every three minutes, even pre-pandemic it was every 40 seconds.
Humans don’t multitask well. Say you’re writing a report and an email comes in. Rather than being distracted by the email and going back to the report, you check your social media, have a coffee, or something else. On average, 23 minutes passes until you go back to the first task. So if your work requires concentration, if you can only stay focused for 40 seconds it will be very difficult to accomplish one task.
We end up putting a lot of effort into working during our eight-hour work day, which creates more pressure. Our brains literally consume more energy. Sometimes we end up working longer hours, or some people work evenings or late at night so they’re not being distracted. The way software is designed and the way culture in many companies works is that we’re expected to be available all the time, and this has a cost.
You gave up your smartphone while working in digital marketing. What did you learn about how it affected your work life?
I’m not advocating everyone give up their smartphone, but I was worried that as a small business owner I would be missing out on opportunities. But I think giving it up allowed me to be more efficient. We tell ourselves that we have to react straight away, and most jobs don’t require that. For the majority it’s enough to have one channel of communication for something urgent as long as people know what they can expect from you.
There’s no easy fix, because we’re dealing with increasing amounts of information. Humans are getting better at superficial tasks that require some multitasking skills, but it comes at the cost of deep thinking. I work in a position that requires thinking, so with my clients I make it clear that, if you want results, don’t expect me to get back to you in the next five minutes.