Employees and executives are spending more and more time plugged into our digital devices. We rely on technology for our work (and play too). This increased time spent with technology is having a significant and cumulative impact on our physical health (and also our mental health too). We’re only just starting to realise some of the physical costs to our health and organisations are beginning to see the impact of poor digital health on their employees’ well-being and productivity.
We’ve seen a surge in myopia rates (near-sightedness), anecdotal reports from chiropractors and physiotherapists indicate that they’re treating increased numbers of patients with musculoskeletal issues such as ‘tech neck’ and text-claw and there are mounting concerns about possible noise-induced hearing loss because of incorrect use of headphones. There’s also increased evidence that both our sleep quality and quantity is being hampered because of our digital appendages and this is having a huge impact on both our productivity in the workplace and also on our emotional wellbeing.
However, most of us can’t fathom giving up our devices (I certainly cannot). Suggesting that we abstain from technology is unrealistic and unhelpful advice. Instead, we do need to carefully evaluate our digital habits to ensure that they’re not compromising our physical health and adopt simple strategies to preserve our digital health and wellbeing.
Implement healthy vision habits
Ophthalmologists are concerned about the prevalence of myopia in both children, adolescents and adults. There’s research evidence that is linking increased time spent looking at screens in close distance is one of the chief contributing factors attributed to this increase, as well as the opportunity cost that our screen infatuation represents- we’re spending less time outdoors.
STRATEGY One – Green Time
The displacement effect is also a contributing factor for the increase in kids’ and teens’ rates of myopia, as they need time in natural sunlight for their myopic nerve to grow. Time in nature, ‘green time’, has also proven to be vital for adults’ vision. Going outside for twenty minutes each day, without sunglasses, preferably early in the morning will help counteract some of the negative impacts of screens on your eyes. As an added benefit, early morning green time will also help to regulate your circadian rhythms which can improve your sleep quality.
STRATEGY Two- 20-20-20-20 Rule
Every 20 minutes you look at a screen (laptop, smartphone, tablet device) you need to take at least a 20 second break, look at something 20 feet (approximately 6 metres away) and blink at least 60 times (as it’s estimated we blink about 60% less when looking at a screen as compared to off-screen activities which can result in dry eyes from an absence on lubrication).
Implement healthy sleep hygiene
Many of us are guilty of using our laptops and smartphones right up until we attempt to go to sleep and many of us even sleep with these devices adjacent to our pillow. These habits, whilst common place, are having a significant impact on our wellbeing, physical health and also our productivity at work.
The blue light emitted from tablets and smartphones prevents our bodies from producing sufficient levels of melatonin, the sleep hormone, which enables us to fall asleep quickly and easily. This can cause sleep delays which can accumulate into a sleep deficit. We also know that sleeping with our phone in close proximity also compromises the quality of the sleep we have each night. If we receive alerts and notifications on our device, it interrupts our sleep cycles. Instead of completing the five stages of sleep we cycle through 4-6 times each night, if we’re receiving notifications on our device it means we don’t complete a sleep cycle and the latter two stages of sleep are when memory consolidation occurs. Even if our phones are switched off but in eyesight, just glancing at our phone can trigger us to start thinking about emails and work issues, which can hyper-arouse the brain making it difficult to fall asleep again.
Put simply, tired brains cannot remember effectively and do not work at their full capacity. We all know from experience, that insufficient sleep makes it difficult to stay on task at work (we easily succumb to digital distractions like social media and engage more frequently in multi-tasking) and this adversely impacts our productivity. Yet, we’re seeing concerning numbers of employees entering the workplace chronically tired. I think if we could quantify the costs of employee and executive sleep deprivation, the figure would be staggering (we’re working on this).
STRATEGY THREE- Sleep screen-free
Whilst I know this seems like a difficult strategy to implement, having a bedtime for your devices (ideally 90 minutes, but even 30-60 minutes before you fall asleep will be helpful) will have a profound impact on the quality and quantity of sleep you accumulate each night. Going screen-free will allow your body to produce the melatonin it needs to fall asleep and will help your brain to calm down before you try and enter the sleep state. Also, keep phones and all devices out of bedrooms. Buy an alarm clock if need be.
Implement healthy headphone habits
The World Health Organisation estimates that 1.1 billion people, particularly teenagers and young people, are at risk of noise-induced hearing loss because of excessive and incorrect headphone use. Sounds that exceed 85 decibels (dB) can cause noise-induced hearing loss which can result in permanent loss of hearing. Most commercial headphones can read 130 dB and many people are spending many hours a day with their headphones on, often at very dangerous levels.
STRATEGY FOUR- safe headphone options
Instead of using ear-bud style headphones, noise-canceling, ear-muff style headphones are a better option as they block out superfluous, background noise, meaning that it isn’t necessary to turn the volume up as loud. Users can also set maximum levels on their device to prevent ongoing exposure to dangerous decibels. Apple users can read more here and Android users there are some suggestions here.
Adopt good ergonomics
Spending hours a day staring at a screen with incorrect posture can place huge strains on our body. For example, looking down at a tablet device that’s flat on a desk places approximately 26kg of pressure on the neck. Over time, this can result in ‘tech neck’ and other physical health issues.
STRATEGY FIVE- safe headphone options
We need to remember to adopt the correct ergonomic postures whenever we use digital devices at work and home. For example, we need to know how to adjust workstations to suit our physical needs. When using laptops and desktop computers our feet should be flat on the ground and knees and spines should be at a 90° angle too. We should use chairs with adjustable heights, tilts and lower-back support (or insert a cushion to provide extra support). With mobile devices like tablets and smartphones, we should try to bring them up to our eye line (and not tilt our necks to look at them).
These are a handful of practical strategies I deliver in my Lunch and Learn seminar Digital Wellbeing: Maintaining and Maximising Your Health in the Digital Age that I deliver to corporations throughout Australia. I not only address these and other issues related to physical health, but also explore how screens are impacting on employees’ and executives’ mental health, wellbeing and productivity.