Why our Inability to Disconnect is leading to a Productivity and Mental Health Crisis in the Workplace

Nov 9 / Tyler Rice
WELLBEING AT WORK: Think back to a time not long ago. A time before smartphones; a time before workplace email and slack messages. A time when it was unusual – and nearly impossible - for a boss or fellow team member to contact an employee once that employee had left work.

When work was over, it was over.

When employees were home, they were able to recharge.

Today our global workplace culture demands near constant state connectivity. Employees are given work phones that are expected to be on and beside them 24/7. Others are encouraged to download work email and slack applications on their personal devices so they can respond immediately to an incoming message. Internal messaging servers highlight team members who are available with a little green circle next to their name, stoking a daily game of “king of the hill” where the employee who is available the longest is sometimes seen as the hardest working.

But what if those who are most tied to their devices are the ones that are costing the company the most, over time?

Preliminary data from the Digital Wellness Institute’s workplace AI Insights program found that 30% of professionals feel like they can never unplug for “fear of missing an internal message that they were expected to respond to.” Moreover, 40% of employees surveyed attribute their level of workplace dissatisfaction to be directly associated with an unhealthy digital culture at work. Of those 40%, nearly half stated that they would "stay longer at their current company" if they were given the opportunity to disconnect from internal emails and messages after hours and on weekends. Furthermore, 90% of the companies we work with believe that the time employee's spend on their personal devices during the work day are a "significant source of distraction and productivity loss" in the workplace.

The pressure we as employees feel to be always on has become more salient since the shift to remote & hybrid work.

Since 2020, daily average screen time for employees has increased by 3 hours, from 8.1 hours per day to 11.1 hours. More time spent on Zoom led to fatigue; more fatigue contributed to lower productivity; lower productivity resulted in more hours after work playing catch up, resulting in an unvirtuous cycle of work related communications at all hours of the day and night that contributed to the Great Resignation and Quiet Quitting.

The truth is: this current state of constant connectivity is impacting employee wellbeing and productivity. Not only is it not sustainable, but it's simply not good business.

The time has come for us to reimagine the future of work where we as humans can reclaim elements of our attention, productivity, and wellbeing that have been lost in the digital era.

Here are some actionable ways we can do so, beginning with setting boundaries at work and ending with setting boundaries at home.

Step 1. Create a Culture Where Employees can “Work with Boundaries”
1. Avoid the temptation to send emails that are not of the utmost importance to team members on nights and weekends. In the case that you prefer working those hours - or your schedule simply demands it - use the schedule send function in your email to make sure it arrives in your employees inbox within their own working hours.
2. Have an open, honest, and vulnerable conversation with employees about your personal need to set digital boundaries. Share the hours of the day that you as a leader would prefer to be "offline." Whether it's time in the morning that you need to carve for deep, focused work, or time in the evening that is important for your family. Set the tone by showing that it's okay to have boundaries. Trust me, your employees will thank you for it.
3. Share the importance of time blocking for deep work. Today, the average employee receives 96 push notifications during the course of their workday which can easily derail from the task at hand. Create policies within your workplace that protect the right to “disconnect” when employees can do deep work. For instance, email free mornings from 8:00 - 9:00 AM. As an individual, set time on your calendar for deep work. Turn off all notifications - slack, email, and put your phone on aeroplane mode.
4. Teach your employees to write digitally well out of office emails when they are away. Those emails should clearly articulate that you will be out of office, and share that all emails received during the time away will in fact be deleted upon return; thus, all pressing matters should be relayed to a trusted point of contact who will debrief them after they get back. As an individual leader within an organization, set the tone and do not respond to emails on vacation.

Step 2. Then, Help Employees Flourish & “Live with Boundaries”
Once we begin to shift workplace norms to protect the ability to do deep work and unplug after the day we can turn our attention to improving the quality of our time at home: replacing the hours long "doom scroll" on twitter with something that feeds our soul; using that time to reinvest in ourselves as humans to learn a new skill, read a thought-provoking book, or spend quality time with those we love most. In order for us to do so we need to make a conscious decision to set up boundaries in our personal lives.
1. Assess your usage: how much time are you currently spending on your device? What apps or programs are you spending the most time on? Use functions within iOS and Android to check. Additional tools like the digital flourishing survey can help you assess whether you’re finding balance in your personal digital usage and give you a roadmap for change.
2. Ask yourself: is the time I'm spending optimising my productivity, mental health, and relationship health? If the answer is no, take a moment to write down a personal goal for how much you'd like to reduce your screen usage.
3. Take steps to meet those goals: the hardest step of them all. Go through your phone and delete apps that you find overstimulating and harmful to your productivity or mental wellbeing. You don't have to go cold-turkey as you can likely still access them on a desktop, but simply not having them within a thumb's reach will go a long way.
4. Don't fall asleep with your smartphone. In fact, make a pact with yourself or your partner to leave your phone out of the bedroom (and yes, the bathroom too).
Be mindful of the habits you're demonstrating for others in your household and lead by example. By practising digital wellness yourself, you'll set off a chain reaction for your friends and loved ones who will see the positive effects of not being overly connected at home.

The Opportunity Ahead
Employees and companies that truly want to get a head will create a culture of digital wellness both at work and at home. Together, we have a real opportunity to reclaim elements of our productivity and wellbeing that have been lost in the digital era. The time is upon us to re-imagine the future of work so we can reclaim our human potential and flourish.

The question is... How could you create a more digitally well workplace?