The year plus we’ve spent living exclusively in a digital world has corresponded with two new modern maladies – digital fatigue and overall malaise. Digital fatigue usually starts with a sore neck, an aching back and stinging shoulders. Then come the headaches, increased sensitivity to light, irritability and feelings of hopelessness. At the end of the day, many workers are distinctly exhausted, completely worn out and bereft of human connection despite hours communicating with countless people. Celebratory feelings of working in our pjs as we shelter in place have gradually been replaced with difficulty concentrating – or paying attention during another Zoom meeting – lack of motivation and decreased productivity. Overall, if we’re truly honest with ourselves, many of us are not that happy.
Often the best articles assure us that our experiences are not isolated personal struggles but universally shared. University of Pennsylvania Management and Psychology professor Adam Grant’s New York Times article, There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing, resonated with millions of readers. In it, Grant suggests that languishing, a sense of stagnation and emptiness, may be the most dominant emotion of 2021 1. Languishing is the absence of wellbeing, and it sits precariously between depression and flourishing. As employees continue to adapt to remote work, companies need to recognize the possibility that their workers may be suffering from digital fatigue and languishing in their new digital pandemic reality.
“Employee happiness should be a priority for companies.”
Not only are happy employees much more productive, but unhappy employees are likely to seek employment elsewhere 2. Happiness, the positive emotions flowing from the pleasurable activities in one’s daily life, is subjective wellbeing that is constantly in flux 3. This pandemic has thrown a wrench in our overall happiness, and we’re all learning how to navigate this new pandemic reality. Company managers need an updated manual on how to nurture their employees’ wellbeing and how to find a better work-life balance. It’s also crucial to address that a multi-generational workforce consisting of Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials and Generation Zoom requires managers to be open to a multi-faceted, flexible approach to providing a wide net of benefits. Here are some suggestions on what corporations can do for happier employees.
Acknowledge the Possibility of Digital Fatigue
“Combatting digital fatigue starts and ends with acknowledging that it exists.”
Digital fatigue is the state of mental exhaustion caused by the excessive and concurrent use of multiple digital platforms. Incessant virtual interactions can be extremely taxing on the brain. Group video conferences requires the brain to multitask, picking up signals from the various participants and processing it to create meaning. This exhaustion can lead to difficulty in concentration and burnout and can be physically damaging to the body.
Professor Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab, investigated the psychological consequences of spending hours per day on videoconferencing platforms. Published in the journal of Technology, Mind, and Behavior, Bailenson's peer-reviewed article suggests that the frequency and duration of Zoom meetings are directly associated with higher levels of fatigue 4. Bailenson identifies four possible explanations for Zoom fatigue: Excessive amounts of close-up eye gaze, cognitive load, increased self-evaluation from staring at a video of oneself and constraints on physical mobility. Employees and employers need to recognize that digital fatigue is a real possibility in our collective digital lives and should be aware of symptoms to address it full on.
Daily Employee Check-Ins and Working Infrastructure
“Genuine human connection is an essential component of a person’s happiness.”
Managers can do daily employee check-ins to casually ask how an employee is doing. Regular daily check-ins can help a remote worker feel supported and connected to their employer. It helps build trust with staff and facilitates more openness to share possible struggles 5. Managers can get an overall picture of an employee’s wellbeing and make necessary recommendations for them to prioritize self-care.
All employers should be able to provide their employees an ideal working-from-home infrastructure to the best of their ability. This includes providing, or reimbursing laptops, mobile phones, printers, ergonomic equipment and high-speed internet for their remote workers 6. By covering the costs associated with setting up and maintaining a home office, companies shift the financial burden away from employees and ensure an environment conducive to working. This generosity and thoughtfulness can help employees feel valued.
Another way to ensure employees feel valued, surprise care packages. Managers can send random gifts to all employees regardless of performance. These surprise packages can reinforce remote workers feeling appreciated, valued and noticed. They are also gestures of appreciation, which is an emphasis on acknowledging a person’s inherent value and worth as both a human being and as a colleague 7.
Less Is More
Videoconferencing made possible with Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, Webex and any other video-calling interface helps facilitate remote communication in the safety and comfort of our homes. However, it is crucial to be mindful that it is just one medium 8. Just because Zoom is a possibility does not necessarily mean that it must be used. Other modes of communication such as a phone call, an email or Slack chat may be suitable alternatives. Establishing daily limits with Zoom can have a profound impact on overall health and wellbeing. The key is to work with one’s manager to determine when Zoom is appropriate, and whether other modes of communication suffice.
Personalized Coping Strategy and Clear Boundaries
Everyone has different coping strategies that work for them. Whether it's taking a long walk, engaging in a Peloton class or getting lost in a book, employees need to regularly make time for themselves offline. Ignoring symptoms of digital fatigue could result in poorer health and burnout.
“Happier employees take the time to engage in activities that bring them joy.”
It's crucial for companies to normalize the importance of regular self-care especially during this extremely stressful period in our lives. Managers can send weekly emails with new suggestions on self-care.
Many of us find ourselves instantly reacting to all modes of communication while working – emails, texts and Slack messages. This constant interruption of our workflow can leave us feeling overwhelmed, drained and much less productive. For a much healthier work-life balance, consider creating a fixed digital schedule with stricter boundaries. Set aside time for each task. Managers can gently remind remote workers on the importance of not multitasking but rather focusing on one task at a time. Multitasking through various digital platforms can easily lead to digital fatigue. While the post-pandemic reality may appear to be around the corner, many industry executives believe there is no turning back. Digital conferencing will be a permanent fixture.
The bottom line is that employees should feel empowered to have agency over how much time they spend in front of webcams and other new digital interfaces. It's best not to ignore urgent messages from coworkers, but also to moderate ingrained reactive tendencies. While this pandemic has challenged our way of life, it also presents an exciting potential for companies to incorporate positive changes for a happier and healthier work environment, both in person and online.
Rina Mae Acosta
Rina Mae Acosta is an American author and freelance writer currently living in the Netherlands with her Dutch husband and three children. She is the co-author of “The Happiest Kids in the World, Bringing Up Kids the Dutch Way,” which has been translated in over fifteen languages.
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