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The rise of ‘digital burnout’​

The global health pandemic caused rapid digital acceleration for many organisations, both big and small. Teams and leaders embraced a raft of digital changes, in a very short period of time. In fact, Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, reported that organisations had undergone “Two years of technological transformation in two months.” The intense digital acceleration that was thrust on many businesses has resulted in employees feeling overwhelmed and experiencing ‘digital burnout’.

Whilst wellbeing was rising on many organisational agendas before COVID, the global pandemic cast a new light on its critical importance for both employees and employers. The 2020 Global Human Capital Trends report by Deloitte found that 80% of 9000 survey respondents identified wellbeing as ‘important’ or ‘very important’ to their organisational success. The adverse consequences when employee wellbeing was jeopardised became acutely apparent during the pandemic. As a result, wellbeing has shifted from a ‘nice to have’ to a ‘must have’ because organisations have recognised that when their people are well, their business does well too.

The digital intensity of workers’ days is rapidly increased during the pandemic resulting in a significant threat to employees’ wellbeing and productivity. Employees are feeling fatigued, anxious, and burnt out, subsequently posing threats to motivation and engagement.  study found that 69% of employees are experiencing burnout symptoms and many of these symptoms can be attributed to the digital behaviours and expectations induced by remote work arrangements. A Microsoft report suggested that 39% of workers are feeling exhausted and 54% feel overworked. Harvard Business Review found that 85% of employees felt that their wellbeing had deteriorated during COVID. It’s well-established that when workers’ wellbeing is compromised so too is their productivity.

The 2021 Work Trend Index: Annual Report published by Microsoft The Next Great Disruption is Hybrid Work-Are We Ready? identified seven hybrid work trends facing organisations as they transition to hybrid work arrangements. One of the seven hybrid work trends identified was ‘high productivity is masking an exhausted workforce’. The report stated that “digital exhaustion is a real and sustainable threat.” The (constant) barrage of digital communications and expectations of responsiveness and urgency is depleting workers.

The Microsoft report suggested that there had been a 148% increase in weekly meeting time between February 2020 and February 2021, there were 40.6 billion more emails sent in February 2021 compared to the same month in the previous year and despite feeling digitally overloaded, 50% of team members are responding to Teams chats within five minutes.

Why are we experiencing digital burnout?

1.Workdays that never end- whether you’re back in the office, working remotely or embracing a hybrid model, many employees are now struggling to have a psychological and/or physical break from their work. A PwC survey of 32 500 workers, titled Hopes and Fears 2021, found that 37% of respondents felt like they were able to disconnect from work outside work hours and make full use of their vacation allowance.  32% of workers in a study conducted by Asana acknowledged that they weren’t able to switch off or disconnect from work.

The perceived need to be responsive and ‘always on’ has resulted in ‘digital presenteeism’ within many teams and is compromising both employee wellbeing and productivity. Put simply, our brains and bodies are not machines.  We operate within biological constraints which we cannot outperform. Constant digital demands, coupled with inadequate break opportunities for rest and restoration are a detrimental combination and serious threat to employee wellbeing and performance.

2. Our ways of working are incongruent with our brain’s and body’s biological requirements. Incessant digital demands, multitasking, constant distractions (digital and otherwise) and working at home place huge demands on our brain’s resources.

For example, many employees are reverting to multitasking to deal with the constant flow of information and digital demands. Some employees are on a Zoom call, simultaneously checking emails and responding to Slack notifications on their phones. This depletes their supply of glucose in the brain, leaving them feeling tired and foggy. It elevates cortisol levels (stress hormones) and negatively impacts their ability to retain information as multitasking sends information to the wrong part of the brain.

Many of us work with our smartphone nearby. However, studies have shown that the mere presence of your phone, even if switched off and face down, is enough to impede your performance. A study from the University of Texas at Austin found a 10% decrease in performance when smartphone users had their phone in close proximity whilst undertaking a series of tasks (regardless of whether it was switched on or off, and left face down or face up).

As many people adopt more flexible work arrangements and a hybrid approach to work, the use of digital tools to connect, collaborate and create will continue to grow. Demonising technology isn’t the solution. It is imperative that organisations help their employees develop healthy and sustainable digital behaviours and habits that are based on the science of how the brain and body operates in a digital world (and that’s exactly what I love to help organisations do- share neuro-productivity and wellbeing principles in a digital landscape).

Organisations that are looking for an advantage in a post-pandemic world must invest in their people. They are the ‘capital’ in the 21st Century. And preventing digital burnout and alleviating the digital load is a critical element.

Join my free webinar ‘Stop Digital Burnout’ and learn why employees are experiencing digital burnout and the simple, science-backed solutions that can help prevent digital burnout from occurring in your team (or getting worse).

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