Date: 04/05/21 | Duration: 00:29:53

Is the human brain wired for a digital working? Virtual platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams are instrumental in bridging the communications gap between homeworkers, but how can we set healthy boundaries for digital tools, so they don’t fuel harmful working practices? With the expected rise in hybrid working and the impending return to the workplace, healthy, sustainable implementation is key, and identifying stress factors will help keep digital fatigue at bay.

Join Nigel Cassidy and this month’s guests, Jonny Gifford, Senior Advisor for Organisational Behaviour at CIPD, Nilufar Ahmed, Lecturer in Social Sciences at the University of Bristol, and Marc Weedon, Sr. Director of Human Resources at Zuora, as we explore the pitfalls of working in a digital context, and how to foster a healthy relationship with communication tools for future work.

Nigel Cassidy: Let’s face it working alone all day on screen isn't normal, so here’s how to recognise and combat the threat to our wellbeing that comes with tech that's hard to switch off.

Yes, digital fatigue is a thing. I found 133 million results on Google, take new research by the London Southbank University which suggests that digital fatigue is a threat to employee wellbeing. A recent CIPD update poll found eight in ten workers had experienced Zoom fatigue: it’s a recognised state of physical and mental exhaustion, cut off from colleagues our workdays driven by stacks of onscreen devices and life-sapping Zoom meetings. 

With us this month are psychologist and psychotherapist who lectures in social sciences at Bristol Uni, Dr Nilu Ahmed, she has a deep interest in how the pandemic has changed the workplace. Hello.

Nilufar Ahmed: Hello there.

NC: Marc Weedon is senior HR director at Zuora, an enterprise software provider which specialises in subscription-based products, hello.

Marc Weedon: Hello.

NC: And from the home team the CIPD’s senior adviser for organisational behaviour whose research is steeped in the elements of what makes job quality and the use of social technology it’s Jonny Gifford, hello.

Jonny Gifford: Hi.

NC: So Jonny before we get into the detail of what triggers this digital fatigue and how to combat it let’s look at the big picture. I mean we’re all doing more remote working, less commuting, more flexibility, I mean we’re all wearing comfier clothes for this meeting so I wonder why maybe we’re sometimes less than comfortable?

JG: Well we should mention that perhaps through the pandemic some people have seen improvements in their work/life balance, so there's a bit of a tale of two cities going on here, especially for managers and professionals, but in terms of why remote and digital working might worsen employee wellbeing I think there are some fundamentals that we’d do well to start with. 

One is the nature of working from home is partly changed. So where it used to be seen more as a benefit or even a privilege through the pandemic it’s been a necessity and it doesn’t suit everyone. So you might not have a suitable physical work environment, you might have serious distractions from people that you work with, it might not suit the nature of your work. 

A second challenge is that when we feel pressure to be always on, which is really about organisational climate and is something that can exist anyway but it can intensify with mobile or remote technology because there's that potential for work to always be there. 

And then a third aspect is that there's a concerning general trend to a loss of employee autonomy or control over one's work and some employees also see greater work intensity. And again that's not something that’s unique to working digitally but changes in technology can play a role.

NC: So Dr Nilu Ahmed is this something which is reflected in your work, your research, in the things that people tell you?

NA: It really people are talking about working longer hours and as Jonny said there is a sense of at the start of the pandemic when we went into lockdown there's almost a novelty element of that, that oh god we’re all working from home, all of that ability to not have a commute going into work, the extra time we had, enjoying the company of people around us, and suddenly all of the things that were really lovely at the start of the lockdown are perhaps the things that are starting to grate on us ever so much right now when we’ve got family members who are also competing for just things like the internet bandwidth and when people can be online at the same time as each other but also working spaces, some people will be in bedrooms, some people will be in dining rooms, if you’re lucky you'll have spaces that you can share out and work separately from but not everyone is as privileged as that.

NC: And when we were talking before you used this phrase cognitive overload. What did you mean by that?

NA: It means that we’re constantly assaulted by things. When we’re looking at Zoom we’re getting so much information our brains process lots and lots of information at the same time but we filter through for the most important things but that doesn’t mean our brain isn't always processing what’s going on in the background when we’re having these conversations. And so we’re constantly picking up new things: every time you join a new Zoom meeting there's a bit of background that we’re looking at, whether we’re paying conscious attention or not subconsciously our brains are thinking, oh look at that picture, oh look at that lighting there. And that's all having to be dealt with while we’re still trying to do our daily job and focus on the task at hand.

NC: Marc Weedon a lot of the focus has been on meetings hasn’t it and I’ve see research well from Stamford talking about how just having your own picture in frame doesn’t help and there's lots of other stuff, some of which we've already touched on here to do with reading, body language and interpreting silences and everything, have you found meetings have been a particular issue with your people, I mean what do you think the stress points are that lead to perhaps this digital fatigue?

MW: Yeah meetings are an issue and particularly in an environment like my organisation where we have employees scattered over the world and there's a lot of remote management to do there's no doubt that calls over video are more tiring than face to face ones so there's always the pressure of having to deal with glitchy tech, the video buffering, cutting out all together and is my bandwidth going to last, just trying to read the non-verbal cues which are more straightforward perhaps when you’re in a face to face environment in a meeting room with the same people. 

NC: I mean this is something you would never tolerate if the meeting was in the same room.

MW: No exactly, so there's just additional layers of stress and I find personally looking at my own image on a Zoom call for example that's stressful as well. So even having to stare at your own face as well as those of others. And then there's obviously the distraction element, so are the kids going to run in at any one stage, or in my case are the two cats going to come and nag me for my food? So just anticipating things which wouldn’t happen in the regular day to day environment before COVID. So I agree yeah.

NC: Just more broadly Marc from the conversations you have with your people scattered around the world what other particular things do they say are more stressful since you've had to change the way you’ve worked out of offices into private homes?

MW: So one of them has been mentioned already and there's this lack of, or guarding against, the more defined start and end points. Ordinarily if you're going to an office there's a commute zone, for example, and that almost represents a start to the day and an end to the day. So what we’ve been combating with and we’ve been doing this recently called the work/life manifesto. There’s a series of tips which we’ve done in terms of how you manage your time. So making sure that you’re not always on, that there is a defined start, that there is a defined end and during the working day it’s making sure that you avoid that Zoom fatigue or the digital fatigue by making sure that, for example, if you have got back to back Zoom calls then you arrange them for 25 minutes or for 55 minutes, depending whether they’re meant to be half an hour or an hour long, just so that there is these micro breaks between these ongoing calls.

NC: Okay well we’ll look in a bit more detail at some of the things which maybe organisations ought to be doing to sort of mitigate some of these symptoms, but let’s look in a bit more detail about the actual indications that things are wrong for people. So Dr Nilu Ahmed I mean this can start can't it just with physical things, I mean just sore eyes or headaches, something like that? 

NA: Mm, very often, and many of us don't have appropriate work chairs to be sitting on, people have worked sitting on their dining chairs for seven/eight, hours a day because they’re just fixed to their screen. And we’re looking at screens, they’re in such a short range and that's really stressful on our eyes, that's a lot of eyestrain but it’s also psychologically stressful because we’re looking at people almost within what we call or consider our intimate distance and so our brain is struggling to figure out why are these strangers in the space where my loved ones should be? And at the same time when we’ve had social distancing our loved ones have actually been in a space that is reserved for acquaintances and people we don't know. So our brains are really struggling to figure out what’s going on. 

NC: And Jonny Gifford this can spill out into sort of more mental issues, harder to define perhaps but shortness of temper, we might make decisions hastily, we’re just overwhelmed by the sheer weight or work that we’ve got and this is exacerbated when you’re on your own.

JG: Yeah there's various factors I think included in this which ideally you could look at in their own right. So, as Nilu has already mentioned, there's the attention deficit and the fact of switching between tasks is something which is cognitively demanding on us. So that can be a drain. If, as managers, you can reduce the amounts of time that people are switching from one thing to another then that's going to help. But also yes you've got factors like overall workloads, which often can go up during times of a recession for example, so that's something to bear in mind. Workload can also go up just when there's organisational change and the massive move to homeworking has obviously been a big instance of organisational change. And then there's this ongoing, really important aspect of the autonomy that people have, whether people are empowered to take control over their work. So there's a number of different factors at play here.

NC: And Marc Weedon what’s serious about this is that employers may not be picking up the way they're now working is maybe causing people to experience some of these problems so I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how you try and pick up on issues and how you can start to try and relieve them, in other words what should HR be doing about all this?

MW: So the main thing is just to stay close to what is going on and there are forewarned, informal ways of doing that. So for example within my own business we do very regular surveys, pulse surveys, and we’ve adapted the questions for the COVID environment where we specifically ask questions about how people are feeling about their work/life balance.

NC: How do you know people tell the truth though, they might just say everything’s fine when it isn't?

MW: We do follow ups. So we’ve had focus groups for example where we’ve created channels firstly for managers so that they can share ideas around how to recognise signs of stress or overwork or dealing with work/life balance, and they can share ideas which have worked for them, articles in the press around how to deal with it etc. And we also do that for employees where everybody can make comments around how they’ve been experiencing things and things which they're doing themselves which have worked for them. So it’s all around transparency, open communications, trust, and just creating that environment where people feel that they can actually come forward and say things.

NC: Can you just give us an example of things you've picked up and then what you might have changed?

MW: This week alone I've probably had at least two, possibly three, conversations where people have come forward to me saying that they have been struggling with their work/life balance, so we’ve talked about how that's manifesting itself, what they’ve been doing so far to try and resolve those particular issues. I've referenced our work/life manifesto before, so we go back into the work/life manifesto to see what ideas they’ve used and what other ideas they might want to use. So the fact that I’ve had three people this week alone approaching me as the HR director that's kind of indicative that people do feel comfortable coming forward and that they do know that the company has their back where they are struggling with these sorts of issues.

NC: And Nilu you counsel people do you think everybody calls HR and gets some satisfaction here?

NA: I’d be quite cautious about that, Marc sounds like he's got a really fabulous company and people are coming to him but I wonder if it is as open as HR would like to think it is. People often, when we see people in clinics and clients, they are very worried about divulging any stresses to their employers for lack of understanding about stress and often people don't understand themselves, they think I've got stress, that's really normal in the workplace, and that begins to trickle down and have a really big impact on their work, on their productivity, on their mental health before they even recognise it. Many people think that talking to HR about mental health issues might result in them potentially losing their job or being seen as weak and not being able to get the support. And I've spoken to people who do have mental health programmes at work and they’re not really appropriate for that particular group. So somebody I spoke to said, my workplace has got a really great mental health service but it’s for white people, by white people. And so it’s not reaching all of the diversity of employees at all times.

MW: I do acknowledge what Nilu is saying and there's organisations I've known and organisations I've worked for, for example, where there wouldn’t be people coming forward to HR with these particular issues. Within our company part of our advice might be when they do come to us is, you know, we have an employee assistance programme for example so where there is reticence about approaching a boss or a colleague or HR about mental health issues or other issues which they perceive as quite sensitive then we direct them to the employee assistance programme which is independent of the company, is confident, and it’s advice to instant professional counselling services and support. So that is one of the areas which we do promote as well.

NC: So Jonny Gifford does the CIPD have anything to say about how proactive HR is in these kind of situations?

JG: Indeed it does. I mean the last year has seen both a huge increase in the focus on wellbeing, not just on physical wellbeing and the COVID pandemic itself but on things like mental wellbeing at work. So we see that with our members within the HR community but also we see that with other business leaders. There really is a big wave of increased interest in the area of workplace wellbeing. And at the same time the pandemic has pushed many employers to support flexible working in a way which has not happened previously. 

NC: But there is clearly a gap Jonny between best practice, the kind of things which professionals like to exchange ideas about and the reality of all these tech stats and in a way the technology kind of dominating how people work and maybe senior managers just not picking up on how people are feeling and how it’s affecting their productivity?

JG: I think that it’s more how technology is used that dominates people’s work and just as it’s management practices that dominate people’s work rather than technology itself. What I’d say though is that because of the increase on wellbeing, the changes in how we work over the last year, there is a big opportunity for employers to really take stock and to make sure that they are focusing on wellbeing and work/life balance and related areas in a way which they haven’t done before. So there are some real opportunities, there is some appetite to follow through with them. At the same time we do need to be careful, there is the potential, as I say with mobile technology in particular, to be always on, and just because we can always be available it doesn’t mean that we should. On the contrary we need to be particularly careful about protecting our work/life boundaries. So there are risks but there's also I think a great appetite to take stock and move on positively from the huge changes that we’ve seen in the last year.

NC: So Dr Nilu Ahmed let’s have some practical ideas both for individuals and organisations to try and avoid the worst of these issues, to get the best of technology without some of the disadvantages.

NA: For individuals it’s really simple tips that people find very difficult to put into place: so it’s trying to establish a boundary between your work life and your home life if you’re working as I do at the dining room table, pop everything in a box at the end of the day so you’re not looking at it, you don't have to see it you can at least create that visual barrier for your brain, and that’s one you start to work on one thing at a time to try and take your mind off work. 

Try and do a fake commute or something I always recommend to people, even if it’s a five minute walk around the block, as soon as you’re out of the house five minutes can become ten especially if the weather’s nice, you don't have to go to your workplace and come back just get outside and then at the end of the day do the same thing as well, so you’re mentally switching off from work. 

If possible don't use the camera. Zoom meetings we’re not used to seeing people looking at us all the time and nor do we look at everyone when we’re in a meeting surrounded by people we only look at one or two people in a meeting and it’s the same as being in a lift, when you're in a lift you don't look at anyone, everyone looks at the floor, but Zoom meetings are like being in a lift and forced to look at everyone, and that's really uncomfortable. So try not to put that pressure on yourself. And organisations can encourage staff to keep their cameras off when they’re in meetings as well so that we don't have that on our brains as well.

NC: Marc Weedon I could see you nodding, obviously you go for a little run around the block before you start work in the morning, what other tips have you used as an organisation to take the pressure off people in ways that you can?

MW: Yeah so some of the tips which Nilu mentioned for sure we do those, so we’re emphasising you don't always have to be on, use ‘do not disturb’ in your collaboration tools, don't respond to emails at times at which you wouldn’t be expected to work, carve out that beginning and end time. At a more practical level what we found last year for example people were really reluctant to take their annual leave entitlement, just because I couldn’t go away somewhere nice and sunny. So we actually said, do take your annual leave because it’s important just to take that step away from Zoom and that break from you're emails, so even though you can't go away and it’s got to be close to home do take your annual leave. So we emphasised that as well. We’ve talked about diet, so making sure that you’re enjoying a balanced diet and having at least one decent meal a day, and away from your laptop as well. Looking after the eyes is really important because if you've had sustained time staring at your laptop during Zoom calls just making sure that you regularly look into the distance, you're blinking rapidly, you’re keeping your eyes moist because they quite often get overlooked. We’ve also recognised that people are missing the office strangely because there is a social dimension there, so particularly during the first lockdown, we’ve changed a little bit during the more recent ones, we've tried to replicate that social dimension with virtual events, I've got to say voluntary, so we weren’t making people attend these things but just arranging virtual events which people could come into if they wanted to. 

NC: What another office quiz?

MW: Yes I hold my hand up we did have quizzes but we also had things like just casual things like coffee mornings, we had beer and pizza, we had virtual poker nights and just drop ins. So just having a Zoom room which was open, people could just drop in and have a chat and it’s not work-related it’s just having that social chat.

NC: Some of this is really well meant but Jonny Gifford I'm feeling a little bit queasy about this if I've already spent the day with people do I have to spend the night as well?

JG: Well perhaps not the night but I think that the tips and the kind of hacks that Marc and Nilu have been mentioning are really useful, you know, it speaks to the fact that we’re habitual creatures and we need to incorporate little tricks on how we can work in ways which are not just effective but healthy. One thing that I would add is that we really need to get to the bottom of how to have effective meetings. Rather than just bundling everyone into hour long meetings, anyone who's got a vaguely relevant role to play to be included in Zoom meetings and you end up with massive 20 plus people in Zoom meetings, we need to think about how to make the best use of people’s time, to be more selective about who needs to be in individual meetings, how we manage the return to work is like another complexity which is coming at us, so with some people in the office some people not, how do you manage meeting there? But I think effective use of meetings, effective use of time between meetings, so can you take stuff out of the meetings like a presentation or looking at material and getting people to do that between meetings.

NC: Do you think some of this stuff falls between HR and management because as you say that I can see yeah that's a fantastic idea but actually who's going to ensure that it happens because it’s kind of a bit organisational but it’s to do with getting the job done and there's nobody in the driving seat of this, everything’s become rather rudderless hasn’t it in this new way of working?

JG: So much of people management falls between the dedicated HR function, remember not even all organisations have an HR function, and line managers. So yes absolutely it’s a shared responsibility. But for example HR functions have a clear role to play in sending messages about what’s expected, about what's important, encouraging managers for example to empower their employees so that they can choose how they do their work and even when they do their work so that they’ve got more control over their work/life balance. So it’s a shared responsibility.

NC: Dr Nilu what do you think about that because you hear this from the sharp end with people who are not getting on so well at work at the moment?

NA: I think having very well switched on managers is absolutely key, people are much more likely to talk to their managers before they go to HR but their managers are that sort of median link between HR and the person doing the job and so to make sure that managers are really clued up and are able to feel confident in offering flexibility, not everyone will want to continue to work from home but some people will. I was in a five hour meeting yesterday and I just thought, do I really need to be here? But they’re easier to attend. One of the things I've found since working in lockdown is actually I can attend these for four or five hours because I can multitask. 

Now we know that that actually makes you less productive and is terrible for your mental health and terrible for all the things that we’re talking about today but part of me is worrying as with my colleagues is what happens when we return to work will that option be there for some people to log in remotely, if they have chosen to take this work/life balance and work from home, or will everyone be expected to turn up at work for these long meetings? And those are decisions that do have to be made at an HR and senior management level before people come back into work, but these are the worries that people are thinking about now as we think about returning to work is that how is it going to look in the workplace.

NC: And Marc Weedon have you seen a change in managers as they wrestle with all this? I know before you were telling me a story about a particular manager who was finding it very difficult to adjust to employees having this power and not having to be under his thumb all the time?

MW: From my perspective the role of the manager has actually come to the fore during COVID, it’s been a very traumatic time for many, it’s been a big disrupter. And so the role of leaders is as important as ever and before COVID you had certain types of leaders which liked seeing people in the office, you had others who were more relaxed and this has been kind of a level set amongst that and a way to emphasise what good leadership actually means. So the sorts of discussions we’ve been having with our managers is simple things, making sure you’re having regular check ins. 

Secondly showing up as empathetic, so how are you, how's your family, what’s going on in your life, is there anything I could be doing to help you be more productive or manage your work/life balance better? So we’re trying to encourage managers to get close, stay close, make it genuine. Equally they need to tend to the team and its dynamics, so if the team is remote just making sure what impact that is having on its ability to perform as a team. I think Nilu mentioned already it’s empowering people to have more say over how they structure their work, so that's important as well for the management perspective. 

And then the final thing I’d say is just letting people know that it’s okay to prioritise domestic issues over work related issues. There's been this collision of work/life as people have said before. So it’s fine, there are going to be distractions. You might not always show up face to face. You might not always be always on. You might have to rush downstairs to open the door for the UPS guy. And just letting people know that that's fine and we accept that.

NC: And of course Nilu there is the danger here that we might see this as a little bit too negative as we talked about some of the downsides of the sort of digital changes we’ve seen in the office but like for example now you can get a doctor’s consultation and maybe referred to a specialist or something much more efficiently. I mean there are a lot of benefits that have come out of the ability to get things done without seeing people face to face?

NA: So much benefit and I think we’ll see those benefits really bloom as we come out of lockdown because then we’ll be able to move around in a less restricted way, so all the little things that we couldn’t do before that maybe actually I’ll go to a gym class at 9:30 and I know I can work my day around that, I can start work a bit earlier or I can finish a bit later because I don't have the commute to do as well. So there are things that people can really begin to take advantage of, people who have care responsibilities that makes their life so much easier to be able to work from home, people who maybe have chronic illnesses or do suffer from anxiety and worry about the impact of just getting into work, the fatigue of that. So there are lots and lots of benefits for lots of individual groups, but generally in society I think we know that a happy workforce is a much more productive workforce, is a much more loyal workforce, you get greater retention of staff, greater productivity. So working to understand how we can best meet the needs of a really generally diverse workforce to be able to offer that ebb and flow. What the lockdown has done is it’s shown organisations that actually this works. Working from home really does work and so that should be something that we can really build into practices going forward.

NC: Great and a lot of that Jonny Gifford is kind of reflected in the CIPD’s work, the latest health and wellbeing report?

JG: Yeah and evidence reviews that we’ve put out for example on supporting employee resilience and then a new one we’ve got coming out soon on mental wellbeing and digital work. I would agree with Nilu certainly that there are opportunities. I think that these are opportunities that need to be consciously and deliberately grasped because there is a real danger that we just return to default, as we come out of lockdown we just go back to the old habits, setting up hour long meetings, face to face, everyone has to be in the office, even if the work that they could be doing from home. So I think that there are real opportunities to grasp here. We’ve seen huge changes, we’ve shown ourselves that many more people can work from home for example than we previously thought, we just need to make sure that we take that learning and embed it into how we’re managing people.

NC: And I know mental health is often seen on a spectrum from depression to flourishing. I was struck by the New York Times referring to what it called, the neglected middle child or mental health, languishing, not good, not thoroughly depressed but an absence of wellbeing, which certainly dulls your focus. So seeing friends and colleagues languishing might also be a sign of their digital fatigue. We certainly all need a work reset when we start to languish. Lots of good ideas that we’ve heard today to help, loads more as I say on the CIPD website, including that latest health and wellbeing report, but many thanks to our guest Dr Nilu Ahmed, Marc Weedon and Jonny Gifford. Don't forget to subscribe to our podcast so you never miss an edition, but until next time, from all of us here at the CIPD it’s goodbye.