The pandemic has thrust mental wellbeing into the spotlight for many organisations. It’s pleasing to see there’s a myriad of programs and initiatives being rolled out within businesses to address mental health issues. However, there’s an area of our mental wellbeing that’s often overlooked, but one that has direct and sometimes serious consequences on our mental health: that is our ‘digital wellbeing’.
There’s mounting evidence to suggest that our digital behaviours can impact both our physical health (vision, hearing and musculoskeletal health) and also our psychological wellbeing. Inappropriate or excessive use of the digital devices we rely on in our professional and personal lives can have a detrimental impact on our mental health.
Given that many of us are now working within a distributed team and with hybrid work arrangements looking like they’re here to stay, our reliance on digital technologies will continue in the near future. Therefore, it’s paramount that we cultivate digital habits that are congruent with our psychological needs.
And that’s exactly what I’m passionate about sharing with professionals and corporate teams: I help decode the neurobiology of peak-performance in a digital age.
Three simple habits that can support our mental wellbeing
1. Stop bookending your day with digital devices –
Many of us wake up and reach for our smartphone, or check our inboxes and we conclude our workdays in much the same way: tethered to technology. This can have a detrimental impact on our mental wellbeing as it activates our limbic system, which can subsequently elevate our stress and impair our sleep.
The limbic system is our body’s primitive (but very effective) threat alert system. When we experience a stressful event, which our brain may perceive when we’re checking our inboxes or reading colleagues’ LinkedIn updates, the amygdala, part of the limbic system that helps with our emotional processing, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus (stay with me- there’s not too much more brain science). This part of the brain functions like a command centre- it communicates with the rest of our body through the nervous system. This stress response activates the sympathetic nervous system- so we have the energy to fight, fly or freeze.
We may see an abrupt email from a colleague, or view an unkind post on social media, or an upsetting news story that agitates us. As a result, our activated sympathetic nervous system increases our stress hormone cortisol. Constant digital bombardment means that our stress load is often high for long periods of time. Elevated and prolonged periods of stress are harmful for our mental wellbeing, physical health and productivity. Our bodies and brains are not biologically designed to cope with the chronic levels of stress many of us are enduring on a daily basis.
Scrolling through our phones or opening the laptop lid first thing in the morning, or last thing at night really jolts our brains and causes us to feel unnecessarily stressful. When we wake, or just as we fall asleep our brain is producing alpha waves, which is a state of wakeful rest. Scrolling or tapping on your device can prematurely thrust you into beta (high-stress state).
Not only do our digital habits elevate our stress response, particularly at vulnerable times of the day, it also has significant impacts on our sleep. Research clearly shows that sleep plays a critical role in supporting our mental health. Poor sleep quality and/or quantity have been shown to have a negative impact on mental wellbeing.
As we all know, our screen habits can certainly sabotage our sleep. There’s the displacement effect that results from our time online displacing the time available to sleep (late night triaging our inbox, or binge-watching your favourite Netflix series). There’s also an arousal effect too from more interactive screen activities that can also contribute to delayed sleep. The use of backlit devices, like tablets and smartphones, in the hour before we fall asleep can delay the onset of sleep because the emitted blue light suppresses the sleep hormone melatonin, which can also impact our quality of sleep. Blue light exposure can cause repeated awakenings, interrupt sleep cycles and reduce the amount of time spent in the deeper, more restorative sleep stages (stages 3 and 4) which can impact our mental health.
Digital disruptions can also impair the quality of our sleep. Research from Flinders University’s Adelaide Institute of Sleep Health showed that 20% of adults were woken by their devices, or woke up to use them at least twice a week.1 This means that many adults’ sleep cycles are being disrupted and as a result, people aren’t getting the recommended 4-6 completed sleep cycles. Failure to obtain sufficient amounts of deep and REM stages of sleep (the final two stages of the sleep cycle) can explain the adverse consequences on our cognitive functions (memory, learning), emotions and physical health.
- Keep your phone out of your bedroom
Establish a digital curfew for your devices (ideally 60 minutes before you go to sleep to stop blue light from inhibiting your melatonin production)
- Set a reminder on your phone or use the built-in settings to remind you bedtime is approaching
Establish a morning routine that doesn’t involve your devices (place a book, magazine, journal, or running shoes next to your bed to nudge you to create a new habit in lieu of scrolling your device)
- Don’t feed the beast- if you have clients or colleagues emailing or messaging at night, don’t reply if it doesn’t warrant an urgent response. This can create serve-and-return interaction.
2. Establish regular breaks-
Many people, even before the epidemic struck, were struggling to take a psychological ‘break’ from their work. A PWC report, titled The Future of Work, found that only 37% of people felt like they could switch off from their work, outside of their regular working hours such as at weekends, in the evenings and during holidays.2 Other studies corroborate this with the Asana Anatomy of Work Index revealing that 76% of respondents struggled to disconnect from their work and 7 out of ten workers feel burnt out.
As Dr Tim Sharp wisely suggested in this article, “You can’t be “on” if you never allow yourself to be “off”. We have ancient, paleolithic brains and bodies that weren’t designed to be switched on and processing information 24/7. We need a psychological break from our work.
When we’re constantly tethered to technology and replying to Teams chats, going from one Zoom meeting to another and dropping in and out of our inboxes, then we’re hyper-responsive. A report released by the Office of National Statistics suggested that remote work has created a culture of ‘online presenteeism’ whereby people feel obliged to keep working at all hours of the day when out of the office to prove their performance (I’ve written previously about ‘digital presenteeism’ here). Remote workers are responding to digital demands out of obligation which creates a culture of ‘perpetual presenteeism’.
Establish your team’s digital guard rails. I’m working with a number of organisations, both big and small, to help teams establish their Hybrid Playbook and clearly identify their digital communications plan. This plan clearly articulates how frequently employees are expected to response to internal and external communications (e.g. Teams and Slack replies), how urgent situations can be escalated and on what platform this communication will take place and the times and/or situations that people can typically expect to ‘digitally disconnect’. Some countries have already started to create workplace laws in this space in terms of the ‘right to disconnect’.
Disable notifications or switch your device to airplane mode when you want to ‘switch off’ so you’re not tempted to go down the digital rabbit hole.
- Focus on outcomes and output, not time. Using time as a metric of productivity is an industrialised and outdated way of thinking. We need to instead think in terms of whether we’re delivering on our output.
3. Get moving to compensate for your sedentary sitting
Physical movement is another vital underpinning to us achieving optimal mental wellbeing. Research indicates that people who exercise have better mental health and emotional wellbeing and lower incidence of mental illness. Other studies indicate that exercise can be a treatment for some mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.
However, we’re leading more sedentary lives. Prior to the pandemic it was estimated that adults sit for 9 hours/day and that 75% of the work day was spent sitting. During the pandemic, research confirms that our levels of physical movement decreased and sedentary behaviours increased.3 For some people working from home has displaced opportunities for incidental movement: a short stroll to the printer, a walk to the bus stop, a stroll to the cafe.
When we engage in physical activity, our body activates various systems and produces a range of neurochemicals such as dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin that can support our mental health. For example, movement activates our endocannabinoid system which is a cell-signalling system that plays a critical role in regulating our mood and sleep and is therefore vital for our mental wellbeing. Exercise also creates brain proteins called BDNFs, which are like a fertiliser for the brain. Decreased levels of BDNF have been observed in depressed patients. So physical movement is another lever we can pull to protect and even bolster our mental health and we need to ensure our sedentary screen-based lifestyles don’t jeopardise our physical activity levels.
Work in sprints not marathons when working online (there’s science to confirm ‘Zoom fatigue’.) We have ultradian rhythms meaning our energy peaks and troughs roughly every 90 minutes. We need to work within this biological cadence and take regular physical micro-movement breaks to create these boundaries. Intersperse periods of sitting with movement. Ideally, we should be moving every 30 minutes as fat-regulating hormones drop after 30 minutes of sitting. Check out Lizzy’s resources from Two-Minute Moves for some inspiration on simple movement breaks you can incorporate into your day.
- Set a reminder in your calendar to hop up and move.
Start your next Teams/Zoom call with some squats or stretches. It will help you to focus and will make you feel good too.
- Could you use your phone or technology to encourage you to actually move more? Could you use a fitness tracker to monitor your steps? Could you subscribe to a fitness app with an exercise program?
I often say, “The basics work, if you work the basics.” If we put some strategies in place to curtail our digital habits at the start and end of the day to protect our stress response and sleep, if we plan to take regular breaks from our work and prioritise physical movement then we’re fostering our digital wellbeing that can in turn protect our mental health. Technology is here to stay so we need to cultivate healthy and sustainable digital habits.
Want Dr Kristy to speak at your event, workplace, or deliver a virtual masterclass to your team?
3 Stockwell, S., Trott, M., Tully, M., Shin, J., Barnett, Y., Butler, L., … & Smith, L. (2021). Changes in physical activity and sedentary behaviours from before to during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown: a systematic review. BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine, 7(1), e000960.
Puccinelli, P. J., da Costa, T. S., Seffrin, A., de Lira, C. A. B., Vancini, R. L., Nikolaidis, P. T., … & Andrade, M. S. (2021). Reduced level of physical activity during COVID-19 pandemic is associated with depression and anxiety levels: an internet-based survey. BMC public health, 21(1), 1-11.