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Preventing digital burnout: is your organisation ready for the ‘right to disconnect’?

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Digital wellbeing is a growing area of concern for HR professionals as we adapt to hybrid working models. New regulatory changes mean that employers will have to take more responsibility for preventing technology overload.

1st Jul 2021
CEO & Founder Just Ask Max
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Buffer’s 2021 State of Remote Work research found the largest challenge employers are facing with remote working is getting employees to ‘unplug’ after work. With 40% of us never getting 30 minutes of focused time during our work day, it’s no surprise that the ‘right to disconnect’ has been sweeping across Europe, with the UK poised to be next.

Similar to the ascension of mental health awareness in 2005 – 2010, Covid-19 is now creating a new field of employee wellbeing – digital health.

So what is the right to disconnect and what implications does it have for organisational governance, process and technology?

The right to disconnect

A majority in European Parliament voted to introduce the ‘right to disconnect’ and as such it has already been implemented in France (2017), Italy, Belgium, Slovakia, Spain and Ireland. Even New York City – the city that never sleeps – has implemented it to protect people from digital burnout.

When implemented into law, it allows employees a number of rights enabling them to completely ‘switch off’ outside of work.

When does it come into effect for the UK?

The government's 'Working Taskforce' is currently investigating how hybrid models of working operate best and is soon expected to recommend the inclusion of the right to disconnect into the upcoming Employment Bill revision later this year.

Why is this important?

The current ‘always on’ work culture is a key driver to employee ill health, both mentally and physically. Consequently, the World Health Organisation has added burnout to its International Classification of Diseases list.

Digital burnout results in feelings of overwhelm, lethargy and exhaustion, role negativity or cynicism, stress-induced illness and depression.

Culture Pioneers link

Tactical measures to prevent digital burnout

  • Disable self-view: research has shown the image of ourselves reflected back to us by video conferencing solutions is the most fatiguing element of remote working. Turn it off (without turning your video off to others) by hiding ‘self-view’ in the settings.
     
  • Delineate home and work spaces: help employees clearly separate areas for work and areas for relaxation when working at home, e.g. place your work laptop on a desk stand and use only in your defined working space.
     
  • Digital detox: consider no afternoon meetings on Mondays and Wednesdays. Or, meeting-free Fridays so employees can be more focussed.
     
  • Combat meeting fatigue: challenge your colleagues with 15-minute meetings to focus discussions and prevent time consuming ‘talking-shops’.
     
  • Back-to-back meetings: Microsoft found that back-to-back virtual meetings have a significant detrimental effect on mental wellbeing, so try and ensure people are scheduling 25 or 55 minutes meetings to allow five-minute breaks.
     
  • Voice notes: using voice notes to respond to emails rather than writing lengthy written replies can be a much quicker and more personal way to respond.
     
  • Tool-up: assess what tools would help employees be productive. For example, the Forest app simultaneously helps employees stay focused and helps the environment by planting real trees as the reward mechanism. Or introduce the use of a Pomodoro timer to ensure people are prompted to get enough downtime.
     
  • Reduce inbox noise: email filters can be used very effectively to not only reduce the number of emails we get in total but also to automatically file and prioritise. Out-of-office messages can also be used to notify others of when we’re working offline.
     
  • Utilise the calendar: reserve ‘deep-work’ slots for yourself. Setup weekly recurring meetings at 9-11am every Tuesday and Thursday to reserve time to get work done.

These are all quick wins that can be implemented rapidly, but meeting the requirements of the right to disconnect will require some more long-term, organisational change too.

Long-term organisational change

1. Governance updates

  • Policies and procedures: utilise staff feedback channels to introduce small updates to existing ways-of-working policies (e.g. KPMG leading the way recently).
     
  • Review legislation: there would be a risk of employment tribunals (like the €60,000 Rentokil supreme court ruling) should employers ignore the right to disconnect, so ensure compliance requirements are incorporated into risk and compliance processes.
     
  • Digital charter: work with middle management to create a digital charter that defines the communication boundaries for how teams communicate internally and externally. For example, is it acceptable for managers to email their team at 9pm at night or at weekends? Which teams might that be acceptable for? How do you manage communications across different time zones?

2. Process change

  • Training: mandatory annual training (e.g. e-learning) will need to cover off digital wellbeing to enable you to demonstrate sufficient employee awareness.
     
  • Joiners, movers and leavers: embed educational materials into the existing onboarding, moving and offboarding process. For example, if someone is moving from a day to night shift role, this will come with different digital health requirements.
     
  • Feedback mechanisms: embed digital health assessment into existing employee feedback mechanisms such as eNPS (Employee Net Promoter Score) and pulse surveys. Use the ZEF scale to measure specific video conferencing fatigue.
     
  • Wellbeing hubs: integrate a process of reporting digital burnout into your existing wellbeing hub and mental health processes. Do you have existing mental health champions that can act as first line reporting for digital burnout issues?
     
  • Employee benefits: consider a digital wellbeing service as part of your employee value proposition, incorporated into their benefits package.

3. Technology transformation

  • Update device configurations: speak to your head of IT to update company device configurations to have notification settings that reduce digital distractions at source.
     
  • Recruitment sites: recruitment portals that explain your culture, such as diversity and inclusion, should be updated to include the push for digital balance.
     
  • Email deliverability: explore with IT your ability to place emails into a ‘holding area’ on your email server if sent out of normal working hours, then being delivered to recipients when normal working hours have resumed.

What can we expect next?

Similar to the ascension of mental health awareness in 2005 – 2010, Covid-19 is now creating a new field of employee wellbeing – digital health.

With 69% of remote workers already experiencing burnout symptoms and four to five times more of us working remotely expected post-pandemic, this is a trend that is quickly going to transition from a pandemic fad to significant regulatory-driven organisational change initiatives, post Covid-19.

Interested in this topic? Read Mental health: why a digital detox is essential for both wellbeing and productivity.

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