In the Covid-19 crisis digital communication technologies (DCTs) are our saviour. They enable us to continue to work remotely and not to fall into complete social isolation despite physical distancing measures. Indeed, many have now rekindled lost friendships and thanks to DCTs, family, friends and colleagues are just one click away. But are our digital devices really always our friend during this stressful time?
Not for Lucas. He had grown increasingly frustrated and was seriously doubting his ability to cope with working from home. Last week he was in high spirits because he was looking forward to not having to spend several hours each day commuting. He would have so much more time to get work done! He also enjoyed exchanging messages with colleagues in the staff chat room whenever he felt a bit lonely or stuck with his work. As there was a constant stream of messages also coming from the chat room, he never felt alone. But this week he was not so sure anymore. He found it hard to concentrate as he was constantly either looking at his computer or his phone. He was seriously doubting his ability to work virtually. In the staff chat room several colleagues kept posted that they had been more productive than ever. Some even shared that they had worked straight from 7am until 9pm. These messages pulled Lucas down even further. He was fearful now what would happen to his job. After all, the organisation would need to make some redundancies, surely they would only keep these high performing staff?
Although DCTs help us to not to be socially isolated in this time of physical distancing measures, we know that their use takes its toll even during ‘normal’ times. Many people feel that they have no control over when they work and seem to be online 24/7 as requests keep pinging up on the screen of our phones, which are constantly by our side. Digital addiction has been just around the corner for many for a while; but now that physical distancing and isolation measures are in place, maybe it is closer than ever!
Before the Covid-19 crisis, researchers warned that increasing teleworking practices can paradoxically lead to feelings of isolation as meaningful face-to-face social relationships are neglected and we might struggle with having to be present online all the time to keep up[i]. Indeed, DCTs allow us to work from home and stay connected but can overwhelm us with information and make it difficult to switch off from work, ultimately leading us into burnout. The World Health Organisation states that we are currently experiencing an ‘infodemic’ in addition to the pandemic - an overabundance of (correct and incorrect) information is available on all media outlets. Those people who find it difficult to manage their use of technology and social media will really feel the negative effects of DCTs now.
Mental health had been already under threat at work before the pandemic. At least one in four people experienced mental health issues such as depression or anxiety in the workplace[ii]. Many factors contribute to developing mental health problems. However, technology can be a key contributing factor. According to a survey by RescueTime (a time management software company) conducted in 2018 only 10 percent of people felt in control of how they spend their workdays. People only spent 1 hour and 12 minutes a day away from digital communication tools. These survey results would look even worse now. Indeed, a recent study[iii] found that work patterns have changed: More messages are now being sent between 6pm and 9pm on Slack (a collaboration platform). Employees now seem to find it even harder to disconnect.
In times of fear we crave control; finding information to make sense of what is going on is one way of trying to gain such control. Thus, we reach for our phones to seek clarification, reassurance and distraction [iv] and of course a sense of ‘togetherness’. 44% of people worldwide are spending more time on social media than before the pandemic[v] and Instagram influencers have experienced a 76% increase in ‘likes’[vi]. But this can have negative effects on our mental health ...
Anke is finding it hard to focus on work. She had actually enjoyed the first week of the lockdown! She had made great plans for finally taking cooking lessons and spending quality family time together by preparing lunch and dinner together with the children. She was also in touch again with friends she had not heard from in years thanks to the social media platforms she used all the time now. But she found it harder and harder to stay positive. Her children were restless and wanted her constant attention. They were not really interested in working with the online tutor, and she found it hard to get food deliveries for her great cooking adventures. But she seemed to be the only one who was struggling. Day after day she saw posts from her friends on the fun educational activities they were doing with their children, how their family meals were healthier than ever before. Even their houses and gardens seemed to have undergone a complete make-over during the lockdown. She didn’t dare post a message about how she was really feeling regarding home schooling and working at the same time, let alone post a picture of the state of her kitchen.
Our current fear of being socially isolated makes us susceptible to engage in unhealthy use of DCTs – be that staying online 24/7 to hear the satisfying sound of the arrival of an e-mail from a colleague reaching out, or following lots of people on social media platforms to get a glimpse of how we too could live the perfect lockdown life.
Social distancing measures will likely have an adverse effect on most people’s mental health as studies of families who isolated themselves during the SARS crisis show[vii]. Add to this the negative impact of posts from superefficient colleagues who seem be working round the clock and filtered social media images of friends who have reinvented themselves as artisan bakers, and we have a recipe for worsening mental health issues. Therefore, during this time of physical distancing it is particularly important to be mindful of how we use our DCTs within our work which for many has now blended into our home lives:
[i] Fonner, K. L. & Roloff, M. E. (2012). Testing the connectivity paradox: Linking teleworkers' communication media use to social presence, stress from interruptions, and organizational identification. Communication Monographs, 79(2), 205-231. Retrieved from: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03637751.2012.673000
[ii] Mental Health Foundation (2017). Managing mental health in the workplace. Retrieved from: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/managing-mental-health-workplace
[iii] The Economist (2020). How the internet has changed during lockdowns. 18.04.2020 Retrieved from: https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2020/04/18/how-the-internet-has-changed-during-lockdowns
[iv] Schwartz, C. (2020). Attention. A love story. New York: Pantheon.
[v] Statista (n.d.) In-home media consumption due to the coronavirus outbreak among internet users worldwide as of March 2020, by country. Retrieved from: https://www.statista.com/statistics/1106498/home-media-consumption-coronavirus-worldwide-by-country/
[vi] McAteer, O. (2020). Coronavirus sparks huge jump in social media use, study finds. Campaign, 16.03.2020. Retrieved from: https://www.campaignlive.co.uk/article/coronavirus-sparks-huge-jump-social-media-use-study-finds/1677276
[vii] Brooks, S. K. et al. (2020). The psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it: Rapid review of the evidence. The Lancet, 395(10227), 912-920. Retrieved from: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)30460-8/fulltext
Caroline Rook, KDVI Research Associate & Lecturer in Leadership at Henley Business School, 2020