How does the increased use of digital technology at work impact our mental health?

Written by Anna Bishop
Oct 9, 2020

Anna is a Training Product Manager at Red Cross Training responsible for the development and review of our training products.

Using technology at work has become the norm for many of us - so much so that we may not even consider the impact that it has on our mental health. 

However, since Covid-19 confined the majority of the UK workforce to their homes, the use of digital technology at work has increased substantially. In fact, during April (at the height of the UK lockdown), adults spent an average of 4 hours a day online, with 7 in 10 people making video calls at least once a week. On the surface, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Many employers and their employees have adapted to increased digital technology usage well, and it has undoubtedly made communication much easier in such an unusual time.

That being said, there are clear negatives to spending so much of our time online. Extended screen time, the development of an ‘always-on’ mentality and video call exhaustion - now being coined as ‘zoom fatigue’ - are just some examples of how our mental health can be affected by prolonged tech usage.

So, the question remains: what impact has this increased use of digital technology at work actually had on our mental health? We take a look at the positives and negatives of technology in the workplace, and what effect increased usage is having on our mental wellbeing.

 

Communication and collaboration

Digital technology has, and continues to open us up to a whole new way of communicating, but what are the implications on our mental wellbeing?

 

Positives

Thanks to online communication channels, working as a team has arguably never been easier. For years, email has proved to be one of the most useful communication methods in the workplace - allowing us to have conversations that can be referred back to, and that we can reply to at our own pace, with time to think about our answers. The development of video conferencing, instant messaging and task management tools has furthered this convenience - today, workers can communicate via technology easily, no matter where they are. 

For remote workers, these tools are invaluable. Technology not only allows them to communicate with others when needed, but during instances such as the UK lockdown, it ensured workers could still be sociable even when working alone - a huge benefit for those working in isolation.

For employers, digital technology gives them greater visibility of what their employees are doing, and it’s much easier to track where projects are up to and if they’re falling behind. When used effectively in the workplace, communication and collaboration tools can provide a great boost to productivity.

 

Negatives

As with any form of digital technology, communication and collaboration channels have their drawbacks. Many of the negative effects technology can have on us stem from the fact that virtual communication doesn’t give us the whole picture. For example, in an email or instant message, it’s hard to gauge how someone is feeling, or whether their tone is negative or positive. 

Video calls in particular have led to divided opinions on their effectiveness. While many see the benefits of being able to communicate with others, the overreliance of some organisations on video conferencing can lead to employee exhaustion and burnout, due to a number of reasons:

 

  • Work conversations become “hyper-focused”

While digital tech does allow employees to converse with one another even when not in the workplace, whether workers actually do this is questionable. With an absence of smaller, casual conversations in the office, people have a tendency to try to keep emails, video calls and instant messages work-related. Chats about our weekend, that can help de-stress us, are no more - instead, all communication becomes work-focused. This can make it more difficult for employers to know when employees are stressed, or in need of assistance.

 

Not sure what the impact of the current situation is having on the mental wellbeing of your employees? Take our quiz: Are your employees stressed? Recognising the signs.

 

  • Over use of communication tools can lead to complete sensory overload

In such an unusual situation such as a government enforced lockdown, employees working remotely no longer have a physical separation between home and the workplace. At work, you can enter a meeting room and leave all distractions behind. On a video call, not so much. Employees working from home may have other family members or children causing a distraction, and oftentimes the video call in progress is not what commands their attention. This pressure to be ‘present’ in a video call both physically and mentally can be extremely overwhelming, and can lead to exhaustion. 

Additionally, instant messaging and email can become a problem when working remotely. Constant messaging throughout the day is very difficult to keep up with, which means mistakes are more likely to occur. Then, issues that could easily be resolved face to face in minutes escalate and can easily become overwhelming. 

 

  • Some people won’t speak up

With face to face meetings, it’s easier to allow everyone to say their piece. However, in emails, messages and even with ‘on-focus’ elements used in video conferencing software, it can be very easy for one person to dominate the conversation, while another says nothing at all. Video calls in particular can make it extremely difficult for more anxious people, or those lower down the pay scale to command any space, as they may be worried about how they’ll be perceived. The fact that you can see yourself during a video call doesn’t help either, as this can make people increasingly self conscious about their appearance and environment. While the positives of technology such as video calls cannot be disputed, it’s important to recognise the effects overuse and over reliance can have on workers.

If you’re an employer concerned about the impact COVID-19 and increased technology use is having on your employees, read our blog on how to offer support in times of uncertainty.

 

Flexibility

Digital technologies have facilitated an increase in flexible and remote working, giving workers more freedom to work when they please. However, while this sounds attractive in theory, there are some downsides.

 

Positives 

The rise of digital technology and flexible working has given some employees the ability to schedule their work around their home life - choosing to do work at a time that suits them, rather than their employer. This has proved to be a positive for those who are more productive in times outside of the regular ‘9 to 5’ and for those with younger children, as it allows them to work when they can do their best. 

Home working during the UK lockdown proved to be hugely beneficial for some workers, too. A study conducted by the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research and Data found that 88.2% of employees who worked at home during the lockdown would like to continue working at home in some capacity. For many, the option to work from home with the aid of technology is welcomed, as when used properly, it can help facilitate a healthier work-life balance.

Read a real account of what it’s like to experience burnout, and how to strike a better work-life balance in our blog.

 

Negatives 

There are arguments to suggest that the rise of digital technology and flexible working is actually doing the opposite to its intentions. Instead of using flexibility to their advantage, many employees will still feel the pressure to work within the confines of ‘normal hours’, or, while at home, may not stop working at all. With the ability to reach anyone immediately no matter the time, technology has many people feeling obligated to communicate, even if they have finished work for the day. 

This ‘always-on’ mentality can lead to significant problems. For example, employees may feel they must be available 24/7, especially under the current circumstances where entire workplaces are remote and job security is a key concern. It can be hard for people to simply ‘switch off’ at the end of the day for fear of judgement, which can lead to burnout. 

The ‘always-on’ mindset perhaps contributes to this, as well as outdated measurements of productivity that value how many hours are spent, rather than the quality of work being produced. 

On the flip side, those opting to work outside of normal hours, perhaps due to childcare reasons, may find themselves stretched thin. In this survey, only 50% of mothers and 58% of fathers said they could secure a stable block of time in which to work during lockdown. Without a rest between commitments, or the support structures they had in the workplace, employees can very easily become completely exhausted.

For employers in particular, it can be difficult to know exactly when and why employees are feeling overwhelmed. Our blog gives employers advice on how to communicate with their employees working remotely, and the best ways to approach the situation when you believe an employee is struggling.

 

Education 

Arguably one of the greatest benefits technology has given us is greater access to educational resources. E-Learning and virtual classrooms are becoming increasingly commonplace due to Covid-19 - but is learning digitally good for us?

 

Positives

Digital technology has given people across the globe greater access to education. For employees, this empowers them to upskill and become better at their role. The virtualisation of learning also means that people can learn at their convenience - something that many will appreciate under the current circumstances. Technology has also allowed for new learning techniques, such as interactive games, webinars and much more. 

 

Negatives 

The only real negative to digital learning is that it won’t be some people’s preferred method. Arguably, a digital learning environment isn’t the same as a physical one, and there are many challenges that could arise as a result. For example, if the course is pre-recorded, there may not always be chances to ask questions if you’re confused, and surrounding distractions can make actually paying attention very difficult.

However, digital learning experiences are improving. Whereas once online learning would be pre-recorded, there are now options for live sessions where participants can be actively involved. Chat functions and interactive tools make the learning process more engaging, and can help users develop a better understanding of the subject matter. Due to many training courses and classes moving online as a result of Covid-19, we can only expect to see education further enhanced in the future. 

 

Summary 

Technology is always evolving. While we may be facing challenges now, what the future may hold is still unclear. It’s important to bear in mind that while there are negatives to overuse of digital technology at work, the general use of tech in our working environment can be extremely beneficial. That’s why, whether you’re an employee or an employer, it’s essential to understand when technology becomes too much, and you start to feel disengaged, stressed or overwhelmed. 

British Red Cross Training are offering virtual mental health training courses to help address challenges in the workplace that can contribute to mental health problems. Our courses help all employees build essential resilience skills, better manage their mental health from home, and integrate back into a workplace environment. If you are part of a team working remotely, continuing to work from home, or just prefer the convenience of virtual training - our virtual mental health courses are for you.

 

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Topics: Mental health & wellbeing

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