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October 9, 2020
Digital burnout, or the feelings of anxiety, exhaustion, and apathy caused by spending too much time on digital devices, is a growing problem. As technology makes us more interconnected and as the pandemic forces more of us to rely on computers, tablets, and smartphones for work, the risk of burning out goes up and up.
A 2019 Workplace Productivity Report showed how widespread digital burnout has become. The study surveyed 1,057 American office workers. Of that group, 87% spent an average of seven hours a day staring at screens. More than half of those surveyed reported fatigue or depression stemming from digital overload.
“One factor of digital burnout that we’ve experienced in our program is what we call ‘Zoom fatigue,’” explained Mona Potter, MD, medical director of McLean’s Child and Adolescent Outpatient Services. “This fatigue arises after spending hour after hour sitting in the same space looking at the same screen.”
With the pandemic, the problem is accelerating. A July 2020 Monster.com survey of employees working from home found that 69% reported signs of burnout. In a similar study conducted in May, that number was nearly 20% lower.
The increase in burnout has led to action by the World Health Organization (WHO). In 2019, the WHO officially recognized burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” that can influence health status. The group defined burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” The WHO said that burned-out individuals have “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job and reduced professional efficacy.”
Burnout can affect anyone—even those whose work does not involve much or any digital technology. In fact, people can burn out by doing anything too often or too long, like taking care of elderly parents, raising children, even exercising too much.
The problem of digital burnout, however, specifically refers to feelings of exhaustion, anxiety, depression, or diminished interest in a job stemming from too much time on digital devices. Physical signs include sleep disorders, decreased energy, and even chest pains. Digital burnout can be difficult to diagnose, however, because the problem develops gradually, and people may not know they are burned out until it is too late.
The most effective way to combat digital burnout is to simply log out, unplug, and relax. But it is not that easy. The 24/7 demands of our connected world make it nearly impossible to go cold turkey and turn away from our digital devices. With that in mind, here are a few real-world strategies for fighting digital burnout:
Many people feel the need to drop what they’re doing and answer messages as soon as they come in. This constant sense of urgency can lead people to feel overwhelmed and anxious. To fight these feelings, set aside certain times of the day to answer your texts and emails. Remember that not all communication is urgent. Most of it can wait. “In our clinical program, we’ve worked to be efficient about our internal communication,” said Potter. “We implemented an email code that helps with urgency and need for response. For example, we’ll write ‘NRN’ for no response needed if sending an update so the recipient knows they don’t need to write back.”
Your phone and computer allow you to be in contact with your coworkers 24/7. But do you really need to stay in touch after business hours? Try putting your phone away when you are having dinner with the family, taking a walk, or watching a movie. Also, do not check your work email before you go to bed. Relax and get a good night’s sleep. Your messages will be there in the morning.
How many people do you communicate with exclusively through texts, social media, or email? And how can you start to make small changes in how you communicate? Potter shared, “On our team, we encourage each other to take frequent movement breaks, even ending meetings 5-10 minutes early to allow for movement. And, when possible, we’ve converted Zoom meetings to be on the phone so that we can move around while we talk.”
While staying in touch with people digitally does wonders for our mental health, particularly in this time of limited travel and social distancing, it is not the same as meeting face-to-face. When you can (and when it’s safe), connect with friends, family members, and coworkers in person. Meet for coffee, take a walk, stand six feet apart in your driveway. And when you do get together, turn your phone off and put it away.
How many online accounts do you have? How many social media platforms are you on? Do you need them all? Do you use them all? Probably not. Go through your phone and computer and delete the stuff you don’t want and don’t need. You’ll cut down on messages and distractions. It will add time to your day—and peace to your life.
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