Dakota Murphey analyses the causes of digital burnout, how we can avoid it, and for employers, protect against it…
The way we work looks very different to the professional landscape of just a few short years ago. For many, remote working is now a part of normal life with 38% of working adults having worked at home at least one day per week in 2022. That is a significant proportion of the population enjoying the freedom and benefits that working from home brings.
There are also plenty of us who have been given work devices that we can use in the office or at home, meaning we are always connected and available to work. But, every rose has its thorn and for all the benefits of remote working and increased connectivity, there are drawbacks people must overcome.
Perhaps the biggest danger to our well-being is digital burnout, with people being available to work for longer and more often than if they are based at home. There are ways we can avoid overexposure to work and avoid digital burnout.
What is digital burnout?
Digital burnout occurs when we are exposed to our screens for too long. Being forced or feeling compelled to stare at your screen for hours at a time can lead to workplace stress. This can manifest itself in various forms such as tiredness or exhaustion, anxiety, a loss of interest in your job or depression and loss of sleep.
Whether you work into the late evenings while at home, skip lunch or open your laptop at the weekends to check in, we are being overwhelmed by work through our digital devices. This can lead to mistakes and lapses in concentration which can range from falling for the latest security vulnerabilities to being short-tempered with colleagues.
The dangers of always being switched on
Working flat out at any time can see us struggle to maintain momentum and eventually our productivity can wane. The same is true of always being switched on and we need breaks from our screens and devices and time to clear our thoughts of anything work-related, even if just for a moment. There are several symptoms of digital burnout to look out for if you think you are in danger of too much screen time.
- Feeling disconnected from your friends, family and coworkers
- Increased feelings of anxiety, either socially or constantly worrying about work
- Trouble getting to sleep or sleeping through the night
- High and persistent levels of exhaustion
- Reduced performance in the workplace or a lack of concentration
- Heightened feelings of negativity towards work and trying to mentally distance yourself from it
- A general lack of energy or motivation
Of course, these symptoms are not exclusive to digital burnout but experiencing them could be an indication that there is an imbalance in your life. Asking yourself if you are working too much or spending too much time staring at your screen is the first step towards finding a solution to the problem.
The risk of not taking time off
Credit: Alamy Stock
If you are sick, you are sick but there is a temptation to keep working when you have access to a work device. Sure, for mild symptoms then perhaps a day or two in your pyjamas while you work from the sofa is okay but for more serious illnesses and conditions, we need time to rest and recuperate.
We have learned that isolating when infectious is an important step to avoid passing it on to others, but dialling into a Zoom meeting while sick is often still expected of people. That can be exhausting for someone who needs rest but the expectations of ‘presenteeism’ mean we can feel the pressure to attend meetings virtually, even if we’d really rather not.
Sleep and rest are essential for recovery from illness so being able to shut your laptop and get some is important. Not to mention how your performance will be impaired and the likelihood of mistakes will increase.
The risks of overworking are not just mental, it can put our health at serious risk. Studies have shown that overworking can lead to a 42% increased chance of heart problems and a 19% chance of stroke. Although it might not seem like overworking because you aren’t ‘at work’, digital burnout is not something to overlook.
How can we avoid digital burnout?
There are plenty of ways we can get lured into working longer hours and when your laptop is so close by it can be tempting just to log on and do another hour. Breaks are important, and when working on a screen all day a useful way to get enough time away from your device is the 20-20-20 rule.
This rule states that every 20 minutes you need to stare at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds. Applying this rule throughout the day can reduce eye strain and let you refocus. But staring off into the distance isn’t enough for an eight-hour shift and once per hour you should get up from your desk for 5-10 minutes.
This might be to make a coffee, have a toilet break or simply take a quick walk around the block. If you are feeling stressed or overwhelmed by the level of screen time you are experiencing, meditation and deep breathing exercises can help to restore a level of calm.
How can companies protect against digital burnout?
It is not just the responsibility of the individual to ensure they are free from digital burnout and companies must do their part to ensure the safety and continued well-being of their staff. Companies can make a start by adopting an approach that normalises taking breaks and finishing work in good time.
A company culture of working through the evening as well as the day isn’t a healthy one and it’s the first place to make a change. Companies can encourage staff to take regular screen breaks and ensure that managers are checking in on staff regularly to assess their working hours. Communication is important to help recognise the signs both in other people and in ourselves.
Encouraging face-to-face meetings periodically gives everyone the chance to sit around the same table, without the need to stare through their screen. Plus it’s good to be in the same room as people from time to time, even if remote working is your preference. Healthy digital practices help to avoid toxic workplace habits and encourage staff to avoid digital burnout.
What makes us susceptible to burnout?
In this episode of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.
We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.