Burnout= the digital tax
It’s well established that the wellbeing and psychological health of many workers and leaders dipped during the pandemic. Despite significant and ongoing corporate investments in wellbeing and mental health initiatives in recent years, it appears that our wellbeing continues to suffer and isn’t improving (especially for women who continue to report high levels of stress and burnout).
This article will explore how our digital behaviours are, in part, contributing to the decline in wellbeing reported by many. It will exemplify how the digital habits and workplace cultures, that we unwittingly adopted in the pandemic, are continuing to impact employees’ wellbeing and performance.
So what do we currently know about stress, exhaustion and burnout?
Put simply, it’s not good.
The World Health Organization (sic) dubbed stress as the epidemic of the 21st Century. Recent research confirms that rates of stress and burnout are at an all time high. The State of the Global Workplace 2023 Report from Gallup showed that 44% of employees reported that they experienced a lot of stress the previous day, perpetuating a worrying trend in the data that confirmed that elevated stress levels have now been prevalent for most employees for the past ten years. In Australia, 48% of Gallup respondents reported experiencing a lot of stress the day prior. Deloitte research corroborates these findings with 49% of workers saying they feel stressed, 52% say they ‘always’ or ‘often’ feel exhausted and 43% say they feel overwhelmed. It’s evident from this data that employee wellbeing remains suboptimal, despite the growing interest and investment in mental health and targeted wellbeing initiatives.
We also know from research that there’s a gender wellbeing gap with stress and burnout more prevalent in females than males. The Deloitte 2023 Women @ Work Report found that 30% of women reported feeling burned out, yet 50% of female respondents reported that their stress was higher than a year ago. The wellbeing disparities between males and females appears to be widening with data shared in the GLWS Wellbeing Insights Paper revealing women are experiencing psychological stress at record highs, with 19% of women (and 12% of men) experiencing high or very high levels of psychological stress and 21% of women (and 12% of males) experiencing anxiety.
The Leaders Lab 2023 Australia Workplace Report found 63.6% of workers reported feeling burned out and had indeed felt this way for some time, leaving them feeling exhausted. A concerning statistic from this report was that 68% of people who reported feeling burnt out reported that they were exhausted. The State of Workplace Burnout 2023 report found that rates of burnout continue to grow with 38.1% of people experiencing burnout in 2022 (compared to 29.6% in 2020 and 34.7% in 2021). It’s evident that burnout is a serious workplace challenge in 2023 and one that needs to be addressed.
There’s little doubt that these elevated levels of stress, exhaustion, overwhelm and burnout would be adversely impacting performance and productivity. A Deloitte study found that 42% of respondents said that they left a job because they felt burned out. The State of Workplace Burnout 2023 report indicated “… the study found that those experiencing burnout indicated significantly lower levels of productivity and quality of work than those not experiencing burnout. In burnout, people tend to feel drained, overwhelmed or emotionally exhausted, develop feelings of withdrawal or cynicism towards their work, and struggle to concentrate or be creative. If organizations (sic) and leaders want to improve productivity and get the best work from their people, they must focus on burnout prevention as the key to unlocking the potential of their people.” This highlights why organisations must examine what’s currently driving stress, exhaustion and burnout that’s now rife in workplaces.
Whilst there’s no denying that the pandemic, the rapid shift to remote and now hybrid work, political unrest and global financial uncertainty are all contributing factors to the decline in wellbeing (and performance), I believe an often overlooked contributor are our digital habits that now permeate our days (both professionally and personally). We’re using technology in ways that are incongruent with how our brains and bodies are designed to work. For example, we’re multi-tasking, working for long stretches of time without taking breaks (the Deloitte Advancing Workforce Well-Being report found that only 47% of people take micro-breaks during the workdays), spending more time than ever being sedentary and indoors, we’re not having much human connection, we’re spending our days peppered with digital distractions and virtual meetings (which science confirms are exhausting and stressful). We’re paying for using technology in ways that are out of alignment with our neurobiology- how we’re designed to function as humans. The stress, exhaustion and overwhelm that plague many workers today is the digital tax we’re ultimately paying for adopting digital habits that are in conflict with our Human Operating System (hOS)- the neurobiology that underpins our biological blueprint as humans.
The real cost of our digital debt
The digital demands of our days have grown exponentially in recent years, both professionally and personally. Our always-on, ‘busy’, digitally-intense lifestyles are not sustainable and are having a profound impact on our stress, exhaustion and burnout, as the data is revealing.
What is digital debt?
The 2023 Microsoft Work Trend Index report coined the term ‘digital debt’ which aptly describes the digital inflow that now permeates our days. The constant stream of emails, meetings, chats, notifications and data have become the norm. We’re now consuming vast amounts of information each day, sometimes described as ‘infobesity’.
Biologically, our brain is designed to go and forage and hunt for information, but when information is constantly thrust at us (as it is in the digital world) it tricks our brains into thinking that it’s urgent and important. So we feel compelled to check and respond. We feel like we can’t switch off. We feel like we can’t take a break (because the onslaught of emails/chats/messages).
The 2023 Microsoft Work Trend Index reported that 68% of people stated that they didn’t have enough time for uninterrupted work time during the day. Being peppered with emails, chats and back-to-back meetings leaves little time for focused work. So many people feel like they’re spending their workdays trying to get out of the digital red, by working longer and often after hours, reverting to multi-tasking (especially during the myriad of meetings that now punctuate their calendars) and working without taking adequate breaks.
We’re working in ways that are counterproductive to our neurobiology- the optimal ways we’re designed to function as humans. As a result, working in ways that are incongruent with our brains and bodies is leaving many people stressed, overwhelmed, exhausted and burnt out.
What’s contributing to our digital debt?
//Meetings- Microsoft data confirms that we’ve seen a 152% increase in the number of meetings each week, with no signs of this trend decreasing. Atlassian research showed an increase in meeting participation was associated with a higher risk of burnout. Atlassian found that people with up to 15 hours of meetings per week were 23% more likely to have burnout symptoms and people with 20+ hours of meetings per week were 31% more likely to have burnout symptoms. Intersetly, an MIT Sloan study found that having 40% less meetings/week (i.e. two meeting-free days/week) resulted in 71% increase in productivity and 43% decrease in stress, highlighting that simply reducing meetings can possibly contribute to remedying the burnout problem plaguing organisations today.
//Communication overload- An Asana study also found that ‘work about work’ took up approximately 58% of the workday, with knowledge workers using an average 8.8 different apps/day and directors using around 10 apps/day. The 2023 Microsoft Work Trend Index data corroborated this revealing that 57% of time spent in Microsoft 365 is dedicated to communication (Teams meetings, Teams chat, email) and 43% is now dedicated to creation (OneNote,PowerPoint, Word, Excel). Constant communication is eroding the time for deep, focused work, meaning people are often working for longer or late at night to accommodate. Consistently doing so will lead to stress, exhaustion and possibly burnout.
//Time wastage on apps- 62% of people from the 2023 Microsoft Work Trend Index: Annual Report said that they struggled with too much time searching for information during their workdays. In our quest to rethink how we work, as many organisations have shifted to hybrid work arrangements in recent years, we’ve tended to replicate our traditional, in-person work habits with meetings introduced to compensate for gaps in connection and collaboration. This has often resulted in digital overload which in turn can lead to stress, exhaustion and burnout.
//Productivity paranoia- with the uptake of remote working, many leaders and organisations began to question employees’ output in the absence of seeing them in the physical office. This lead to productivity paranoia, which has been defined by Microsoft as, “…where leaders fear that lost productivity is due to employees not working, even though hours worked, number of meetings, and other activity metrics have increased.” Productivity paranoia is commonly found in remote and hybrid work environments. It’s been estimated that approximately 30% of Australian white-colllar businesses are using ‘bossware’ or digital surveillance technologies to monitor employees’ online time. This has eroded trust and also contributed to unhealthy and unsustainable digital habits that are also likely to be contributing to stress, exhaustion and burnout.
//Digital presenteeism- with distributed teams, employees want to be seen to be ‘productive’ and so feel obliged to respond to emails and Teams Chats at all hours of the day (and night) from an optics perspective to prove that they’re working and as a proxy for their productivity. This results in people working additional hours.
According to The Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work the average Australian employee works 4.3 hours of unpaid overtime each week, which equates to around 15% of total working hours, or 224.3 hours per year per . The Deloitte Advancing Workforce Well-Being report found that 74% of workers acknowledge that they struggle to take time off or disconnect from work and only 47% of people take micro-breaks during the workdays. It appears that we’re working longer hours than ever and not sufficiently taking time to rest and recover. This is a recipe for stress, exhaustion, overwhelm and if left unchecked, burnout.
How can we solve our digital debt crisis (and help reduce stress and burnout)?
Forward-thinking leaders and organsiations are looking for ways to curb the digital debt that’s plaguing so many individuals and teams today. Failure to solve the digital debt crisis we’re facing will result in a further deterioration of wellbeing and productivity. I have the privilege of working with businesses, leaders, teams and employees in Australia and internationally and this is what’s working to address this situation.
// Establish your team’s digital guardrails– these digital agreements would provide a moat of protection around work hours, manageable workloads and the unwritten ‘tech-spectations’ that many teams have adopted during the pandemic (and perpetuated as we’ve shifted to hybrid work. I colloquially refer to this as the ‘digital hangover’ with some unhealthy and unsustainable digital habits that have crept into our workplaces and homes.). Digital guardrails are the brain-based, digital habits, practices and principles that underpin hybrid work. I’ve worked with a number of teams to help them co-construct their digital guardrails, sometimes referred to as ‘team agreements’ so there are clearly articulated digital practices that are grounded in neuroscience and psychology. Sometimes referred to as a ‘digital charter’ these guardrails are a common set of principles that will guide best-practice and in doing so, drive productivity and protect people’s wellbeing.
// Learn how to drive performance and productivity in distributed teams. There’s hope that artificial intelligence (AI) will rescue us from our digital debt through alleviating the weight of work and more tedious, repetitive tasks. Data from the 2023 Microsoft Work Trend Index: Annual Report suggested that of the 31 000 people who participated in their sample, many hope that AI could to alleviate the digital overload they’re currently experiencing with 23% of respondents saying that AI could help by “never having to mentally absorb unnecessary/irrelevant information again”, 23% said “cutting the time spent answering emails/chat in half” and 21% said “being able to recall any data or content from any previous meeting/email/chat/file.Will AI be the panacea and silver bullet to our digital debt? No. We need to explicitly teach employees and leaders how to optimise their performance and productivity in a digital context. (This is something I help teams do with my Fortify Your Focus and Optimise Your Workday masterclass, so please reach out if I can help.)
// Workplace legislative constraints to counter the always-on culture that permeates many workplaces- The Work Health and Safety legislation stipulations that mandate managing psychosocial workplace hazards mean that organisations must consider the workload and digital demands on employees. The Centre for Future of Work Australia Institute found 84% of workers signaled support for Federal Government legislation around the right to disconnect that prohibits employers from contacting workers outside of work hours, unless in an emergency.
Let me help you and your team to power-up their performance in the digital world.