The digital detox: is cutting tech out the right move for your business and employees?

Technology is deeply engrained in how we work and live. However, concerns about our addiction to our devices and the resulting impact on well-being and performance have seen the rise of ‘digital detoxing’. But is cutting out tech in the workplace beneficial – or even achievable?

As part of its recent iOS 12.0 update, Apple introduced its new ‘screen time’ feature, designed to increase self-awareness about device use. By monitoring our usage data and promoting ‘screen free’ time, Apple hopes to empower users to change their behaviors – and get off their devices.

It’s an approach that has been met with mixed reviews. A digital response to a digital problem? Is it up to the tech giants to control how little or often we pick up our phones? Does this set a precedent for other big names to follow?

The question of digital health and tech overuse is hot topic. We’re still – relatively speaking – pretty early on in our digital age, and the pace of development means we don’t fully understand the impact.

However, studies are beginning to connect the dots between tech use and well-being. Apple’s move also shows a shift, as public pressure to hold the companies behind our digital world accountable continues to grow. Recognizing impact and being part of the solution is now considered part and parcel of corporate social responsibility for Silicon Valley.

But on a smaller scale, as employers – is it our obligation to help our employees disconnect?

Does digital really do damage?

In short: yes.

Of course, the answer isn’t black-and-white; but studies now show worrying correlations between excessive technology use and mental or physical wellbeing. As World Mental Health Day looms on 10th October, it’s a timely moment to consider impact.

Impact on work-life balance:

The blurring of work-life boundaries and our ‘always on’ connected age means technology is paving the way for work to intrude on our personal lives. We may be physically away from the office, but we’re never really away from our work.

“My phone would be sat on the dinner table and I’d find myself putting out fires, amending contracts and chasing staff via email, rather than paying attention to my kids,” admits a former UK CEO in the tech sector.

“I was checking my emails the minute I woke up at 6am and I’d still be responding to queries and checking figures when I got to bed at 11pm. I was never offline. It was damaging my relationship with my partner and my children, and I was fast headed for complete burnout.”

It’s an increasingly common story. Overuse of technology has the potential to impact on our relationships and take away time needed to invest in other areas of our lives – including our families or friendships, our own health, and the need for ‘down time’. The resulting level of stress can be hugely detrimental.

Disturbed sleep:

A study found that ‘blue light’, emitted by electronic devices including our phones, TVs and laptops, interrupts or prevents deep, restorative sleep. The resulting fatigue impairs our concentration, creativity, problem-solving capacity and more.

To put that in business terms, the Hult International Business School found the due to a depreciation of skills such as communicating effectively, assessing risk and producing innovation solutions that come from a lack of sleep, organizations lose an average of $2,280/year for every sleep deprived employee.

Mental well-being:

Research has shown excessive technology use can have an impact on stress levels, and depressive or anxiety symptoms. What’s more, a study showed that when individuals don’t have access to their devices, they demonstrate dependency and addiction withdrawal symptoms – such as increased blood pressure, heart rate and anxiety.

The link is between addiction to, rather than simple use of, technology. However, as multi-billion-dollar companies continue to invest into research and development with the sole goal of maintaining our attention – fostering addictive behaviors – it’s a legitimate concern.

Why a cold turkey digital detox doesn’t work

A digital detox is a period during which a person refrains from using digital or electronic devices, as to avoid distractions or make time for other activities.

Reading the research is enough to scaremonger anyone into locking their devices in a box and deleting Facebook in panic. But the truth is, while the end goal may be admirable, opting for a complete ‘detox’ – especially in work – is setting us up to fail. Here’s why:

We need tech in our working lives

For starters, technology isn’t evil.

Quite the opposite: it has transformed how we communicate, collaborate and work. Technology automates many mundane tasks and makes us more productive. It’s opened up opportunities for us to be more flexible, innovative, to expand our organizations on a global scale. It connects us with people and information needed to do our jobs; it keeps us in touch with friends and family in our personal lives.

For the majority of organizations, it is also the very fabric of being able to simply function: we need our CRM, our DMS, our Customer Service ticketing system. Unplug, and business crumbles. And with 81% of Millennials saying technology available influences their decision to take a new position – and 52% saying they’d quit a job if the tech available didn’t meet their standards – it’s clear a tech-free workplace just isn’t realistic, or achievable.

It’s a negative concept

The idea of a ‘detox’ also comes with a lot of negative connotations. We detox from things which are inherently bad for us. The word, then, implies addiction, dependency and an inability to make our own choices.

A mandated top-down order from management instructing that we need to ‘detox’, is also likely to have the opposite to desired effect amongst your employees. When staff feel Big Brother is oppressively commanding them to switch off, there will be resistance and a lack of buy-in.

65 percent of Americans somewhat or strongly agree that periodically unplugging is important for mental health; however, only 28 percent of those actually do unplug.

Having to ‘detox’ also suggests that this is something that is difficult to achieve. Framing it this way will reduce the likelihood of success – people feel it’s hard before they even start.

It’s not a long-term solution

As anyone who has undertaken a detox from any other vice will testify – whether that be caffeine, chocolate, alcohol or something else – there’s also a certain irony in it. A detox, by nature, tends to be a periodic ‘break’. You then create a situation where if you are good, obey the rules, succeed, you then reward yourself at the end of that break by – you’ve guessed it – allowing yourself to re-adopt that same vice.

So, we take a break from technology, feel pleased with ourselves for achieving our goal, and then reward ourselves by picking it up again. While the break may be beneficial, it is only a temporary fix.

Mindful tech use

The solution, then, isn’t to pull the plug. Instead, we should be striving to make more conscious decisions about our technology use – what we use, when, and how long for.

unplugging from technology at work isn't realistic

Choosing to detach from our devices and use them in a controlled way – rather than letting them control us – requires a behavioral shift that has to come from us as individuals. However, as employers, we also have a responsibility to protect our staff; and given that a large portion of everyday tech use is driven by work, we need to play our part.

So, how can we, as employers, help our employees with digital use?

  • Educate employees: raising awareness about the potential impact of tech over-use and promoting in-house policies or expectations – for example, around sending and answering emails out of hours – can help begin the behavioral shift. If staff know that it’s OK not to hit reply in the evening, and that taking time away from their cellphone can improve their well-being, they may take action on their own.
  • Set an example at leadership level: we discussed this in a recent blog on streamlining communication in the business. How our leaders behave shapes our culture and builds a pattern of behaviour in our employees. If your senior leaders are answering out of hours emails or constantly glued to their mobile devices, staff will follow suit.
  • Delete IM apps off staff devices: do your employees really need to have Slack and Yammer installed on their mobiles? Unless you have remote or on-road employees who operate on their mobile devices regularly, it’s surplus to requirements. Having instant messaging tools embeds the ‘always on’ mentality and makes it more difficult for staff to disconnect.
  • Have a well-equipped break space: if your employees are opting to lunch at their desks and browsing social media or news sites while attacking their sandwich, it’s time to think about what you’re offering as an alternative. A kitchen or relaxation area that includes other distraction options, such as books/magazines, a foozeball or snooker table, games or music, will give them incentive to get up and disconnect.
A well equipped office break space may reduce tech use
  • Offer well-being or recreational activities: lure your staff away from their desks and devices by offering something better. Lunchtime gym or yoga classes, lunch’n’learns, or common interest groups – such as a reading club, running club, or photography group – can bring a welcome diversion that will encourage everyone to abandon their emails and put away their cellphones.
  • Shut down email after hours and during annual leave: emails can be the biggest curse for anyone looking to switch off. Daimler famously led the way with an auto-delete program for staff on annual leave; for others looking to follow suit, out of office auto responders or even going the full whack of turning off in-house servers can give staff the space they need.
  • Schedule digital downtime: A complete blackout may not be the answer, but smaller, regular detox sessions can help instil the awareness and culture of taking a break from technology. This could range from an ‘airplane mode’ switch off for email and internal comms for an hour each week, through to a quarterly ‘switch off’ day completely away from all technology that can be committed to team building or creative problem-solving activities.
  • Make meetings tech-free: just having a phone on our desk – even if it’s in airplane mode and face down – reduces our working memory by 10%. That’s a curse that comes into the meeting room too. To truly maximize creative thinking, problem-solving and increase attention spans – and hopefully reduce the length of meetings – consider introducing a ‘no tech’ rule for your internal meetings.

We may not be able to get staff to fully disconnect, but even small changes can stimulate a cultural shift that may help our employees develop healthier relationships with technology.

A divorce from digital?

Our relationship with technology is complex and evolving. Rhetoric going around now suggests we carry more tech in our pockets than it took to put man on the moon – whether that’s a true fact or not, we’re in a situation now where it’s not unfeasible.

For younger generations, there has never been a life without the World Wide Web or smartphones. The idea of a divorce from technology will simply be unthinkable. And in the workplace, it’s a critical element – the foundation of how we operate. Take away our digital frameworks, and we’ll crumble.

So, pulling the plug, signing the divorce papers, going into a tech-free bubble – it’s not going to happen. Perhaps it’s time for the digital detox to die altogether. Instead, let’s strive for periodic, conscious detachment – and reap the benefits both professionally, and within our personal lives.