As I write this article, I’m preparing to speak for the third year running at the (virtual) Health and Wellbeing at Work Conference, this time on the topic of digital burnout, giving a pre-recorded talk and a live Q&A. The irony of this is not lost on me, as writing and recording my talk has turned out to be an incredible struggle.
It’s not because of lack of interest, or because I don’t have plenty to say; the problem for me is that I have to do it digitally. There are no faces or responses in the room for me to bounce off, so all of my competence as a speaker is being challenged. I feel alone, wondering if I am giving the audience enough space for their reflections or if they think my jokes are funny. The echo chamber is silent. I am staring at a screen, looking at myself. I can feel the fatigue in my eyes and in my emotions.
I imagine readers of BACP Workplace will have worked with burnt out clients, or those teetering on the edge, and I fear some of you may know the phenomenon first-hand. However, these feelings I’m experiencing as I prepare for a talk on digital burnout, have all the hallmarks themselves of burnout. In 2019, the World Health Organisation (WHO) classified ‘burnout’ as an ‘occupational phenomenon’ in its International Classification of Diseases 11th Revision (ICD-11), and defined it as: ‘…a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed’.1 According to WHO, burnout is characterised by three dimensions:
- 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 refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.1 While I don’t feel like this about all aspects of my professional life – it does speak to the way I feel about how I now have to work. Welcome to the world of digital burnout – the fast-evolving new variant of burnout. Being new, there’s not much literature that has yet been published on it, so I consulted the modern oracle, Google Scholar, which found me two hundred and thirty thousand results on ‘burnout’. However, when I asked it about ‘digital burnout’, it gave me just fourteen results – with the earliest in 1983, and the most recent, unsurprisingly, being 2020.
A global picture
A letter published in World Social Psychiatry in May last year, written by experts at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Karnataka, India,2 described the correlation between COVID-19 and our increased online activities, whether for work, studying, tele-consultation, online meetings, teaching, as well as for leisure time activities: ‘The demands (subjective or environmental) for permanently being online are being associated with the high levels of physiological activation, feelings of tension, perceived expectations, discomfort, and anxiety … even online meetings require more attention in comparison to face-to-face meetings as one needs to be attentive and focused throughout the meeting for verbal and non-verbal components from all individuals participating at the meeting. All these factors contribute to the feelings of exhaustion in the form of digital burnout. These findings indicate that digital technology appears to be increasing challenges for the population in maintaining the balance between the time spent on online and offline activities.’2
Their research suggests that global digital activity during lockdowns has increased in the areas of streaming web-series/shows, using social media, messenger services, listening to streaming music services, time on mobile applications, video games, creating and uploading videos and listening to podcasts. These findings corroborate global statistics on the significant increase in the amount of time we spend using our devices: a seventy-six per cent increase for smartphone use, forty-five per cent for laptops, thirty-two per cent for desktops, twenty-two per cent for tablet devices, thirty-four per cent for smart TV or streaming devices, seventeen per cent for gaming consoles, eleven per cent for smart speakers, and six point three per cent for smart watches.2
Where are we now?
The above findings were submitted in May 2020, so one wonders what our digital activity might look like today: my hunch is that the figures would be considerably higher. Ask yourself, if you were to calculate the changes and increases in your digital activity – what might they look like? How much more laptop/PC/tablet time are you clocking up? How many times a day do you pick up your phone, but not to phone someone? Some recent research on Techjury3 suggests that seventy per cent of all media time is spent on smartphones, and the average internet user checks their phone fifty-eight times daily. Is this you? If so, have you thought about what impact this is having on you, or on your clients?
Next in this issue...
Digital threats to therapists
For therapists like me, used to working in person, there are a host of other factors to consider about the differences in working online, and one of these is the cost of ‘unnatural frontality’.4 The term ‘unnatural frontality’ refers to facing and being close up to the digitised face of another, something that happens daily in my working life. Such closeness happened when I was a baby, when my innate needs were activated for food and for comfort. Ordinarily, it happens now in threat or love; it is a visual stimulus for my attachment systems to fire up; and if I go and seek care or go into self-defence mode, I can become vulnerable and cognitively impaired. So, if my care-seeking system does activate, what restoration or meeting of need can I seek from the person on the screen (even if it’s appropriate to do so)? If it’s not appropriate, I need to regulate this for myself, which costs me energy and time, might even leave my autonomic system wanting, and can cost me a sense of competence.
Non human signals
So, it’s important we acknowledge that we are constantly managing an embodied absence; technical glitches that diminish our empathetic accuracy, compromise our attunement and lead to what the American Psychologist, Todd Essig, describes as ‘a loss in interactional synchrony’.5 You or your clients might feel wrong-footed, the flow and rhythm in the exchange falters, lips get out of sync, they or you speed up or slow down. The occasions of visual miscues are vastly increased online – technical hitches, glitches, freezes, jumps, flashes, sudden close-down, quiet sounds and loud sounds – and all of these would normally be threat stimuli, which ordinarily raise our natural defences. Instead, I now need to remind myself that these are not human signals and retrain my brain and my body. It is tiring and means I have to work harder to keep up.
We might also find ourselves facing the possibility that our memory and recall are being impaired by any reduction in physical movement, less commuting for instance. Neurological data get encoded in me when my eyes and body move, and the left and right hemispheres of the brain are busy when I am moving. This activity creates new synaptic pathways (the biological form of knowledge, connections, associations), so when I move, I help my body process and neurologically embody my experiences. I find myself in a strange place, having new stimulii and less contextual data to embody. The absence of contextual information (which is available in person) leaves me cognitively backfilling what is missing. It seems there is much for me to learn and understand about how I support my process, my memory, health and wellbeing in telepresence and digital working.
Holding more realities
Since the shift online in March 2020, I wonder whether I’m experiencing an additional cognitive burden as I try to hold two forms of reality in my mind; being face to face in a room, versus being virtually face to face; commuting to a place of work, versus opening the PC at home? I suspect I can’t entirely let go of my old life and the world of work, projecting inside my head like a romantic movie, as I try to concentrate on the task in hand; but it is tricky. As I write this, I notice the alarm on my phone, I’ve an ear cocked for the delivery I’m expecting, and I’m listening out for whether my daughter is really paying attention to her online class or the TV; and trying to think of ways to cajole and encourage her to concentrate on school work. My attention is split, actually and virtually. This costs me my energy, my vitality and my resource. Unlike me, my daughter – a digital native – does seem able to split her attention in ways that I can’t muster. Her fluency on her phone and in the digital world means it takes less focus, less attention and is therefore less draining for her. It doesn’t mean that she can’t still learn to focus on single activities, but there are differences in her evolutionary habitat.
Taking all this into account, I’ve been working out what might help me get through the pain and disturbance of adapting to my new life online, and I find that there are some past experiences that I can draw on to help me. I learned to drive a car while driving it, albeit with a driving instructor alongside. I learned to be a therapist by practising my skills, first on my peers and then on clients. So, I wonder, is this new learning even more challenging because I am doing it alone? I know I approached the digital transition which our profession had to make, with gusto, but perhaps with hindsight I went off too quickly, not realising that I was taking part in a marathon.
Treating digital burnout
So, what treatment might alleviate the symptoms of digital burnout? You’ve probably heard of sleep hygiene, which refers to what we do to manage our rest, our sleep, powering down, creating the best environment (safe immobilisation) for sleep or restorative calm. The practitioners who sent the letter to World Social Psychiatry2 suggest that we should now turn our attention to digital hygiene; and I couldn’t agree more. They make several suggestions which have the potential to minimise the risk of developing digital burnout, and I’ve added some of my own to the list below:
- Take frequent breaks from the screen
- Have structured hours for online office work
- Set demarcated time for online leisure activities
- Engage in indoor/outdoor physical activities
- Secure time offline
- Stop using digital devices and online activities one hour before sleep time
- Turn away from the screen – don’t sit completely face on.
One of the simplest changes I’ve made, is to put the sleep display setting on my screen throughout the day, so at least the bright white interrogating screen colour isn’t triggering my body into a threat response. And, actually, I noticed the relief in my eyes instantly.
What the research says
I’ve found it helps to learn about how others respond to the omnipresence of screens in our lives. In her dissertation, Why millennials and generation Z prefer print books over e-books,6 Jocelyn Pontes explains that the phenomenon of digital burnout has become a prevalent problem for people of all ages, including digital natives, and she cites some surveys of students revealing their complaints about reading on-screen, which comprised both physical and emotional symptoms. One of the studies, carried out by Erik Wästlund at Karlstad University in Sweden,7 showed that reading on screens can make readers feel more tired and stressed than reading print. This is caused largely by the nature of digital reading: ‘In general, screens are more cognitively and physically taxing than paper. Scrolling demands constant conscious effort, and LCD screens on tablets and laptops can strain the eyes and cause headaches by shining light directly on people’s faces. Complaints of tiredness appeared several times among my respondents’ reasons for disliking digital reading.’7
Take a break
These days, I remind myself that I can take a break, and that can mean simply looking away from the screen. I don’t need to stare at the screen all the time. Neither do I need to sit completely front on. Do you remember learning to set up the counselling chairs when you were training? Well, you can shift your position in relation to the screen and the person you’re looking at. If I use wireless headphones, I can walk and talk. When I do this, I’m modelling, and I can give permission to clients or colleagues to take a break too. If I actually use my phone as a phone, it means my eyes can move around or even be closed, and that gives me respite. I’m noticing the times when I feel a deep sense of screen aversion, when I just don’t want to look at my phone again or at a screen, and this association is transferring to other activities which may previously have offered me pleasure and relaxation.
It may seem a bit late, but I think I need to accept that I am indeed working in this way. Actually, I have been doing a really good job of making it happen, but perhaps I spent more time in the denial stage than I’d previously understood – that’s denial for you! If I can now accept the ongoing challenges of my digital life, might I be able to support myself better to find a way to manage it?
I’m sure some of you will have adapted well to the changes to your professional lives and are further along in developing your skills and competence. I am envious and I also congratulate you. But for anyone who is still in the conscious incompetence or even the conscience competence stages – I’m right there with you. If you are feeling eye strain, physical discomfort, RSI, cognitive overload, emotional fatigue, dips in morale or focus, then it’s not too late to take action. I’m saying this as much for me as for you. Acceptance really is one of the most significant transformative stages for change. It doesn’t mean I have to like it, and I don’t.
I think we should also be rethinking how we manage our work expectations and the expectations of the organisations we work with and for. This could mean that we hold fewer meetings, and/or give more time to move between meetings and encourage our clients and employees to reintroduce a time when we ‘commute’ between engagements. We could try working away from our screens when we can, trying not to get caught by the technology but to use it to work for us instead. Perhaps this is the right time to be thinking differently, as we prepare to emerge back into society, blending in only the best bits of digital working.
Somewhere on the horizon, my world will begin to involve more old ways of working again, perhaps a commute, a trip to the office and a return home at the end of the day. So, while I can’t entirely let go of the movie that plays inside my head, perhaps I can find ways to minimise the psychological toll this duality is placing upon me.
Writing and preparing my talk has helped me to meet myself in my discomfort, to know myself better and allow myself to know that my body is hurting and to keep looking at ways that I might treat myself. I don’t want to become digitally burnt out, and it’s a very real new risk for me, and you, in our world of work. To mitigate against this, I’m working on blending in more good practices for digital hygiene, having digital detox time and taking digital holidays.
The research really does suggest that the effects of excessive use of technology are a likely pathway to digital burnout – though it may take us some time to count the true costs. It will be one of many side effects of the global pandemic, leaving wounds needing tending to and acts of kindness to restore our health and vitality as we re-emerge on the other side.
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2 Sharma MK, Anand N, Ahuja S, Thakur PC, Mondal I, Singh P, Kohli T, Venkateshan S. Digital burnout: COVID-19 lockdown mediates excessive technology use stress. World Soc Psychiatry. [Online.] https://www.worldsocpsychiatry.org/text.asp?2020/2/2/171/292110 (accessed 1 March 2021).
3 https://techjury.net/blog/smartphone-usage-statistics/#gref Susman K. Between the tiles: the psychology of the virtual room. Person-centred and experiential psychotherapies. 2021. In review.
5 Pontes J. Why millennials and generation Z prefer print books over e-books. 2020. [Online.] http://www.jocelynpontes.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Masters-Thesis-for-MA-Publishing_Jocelyn-Pontes.pdf (accessed 1 March 2021).
6 Jabr F. Why the brain prefers paper. Scientific American 2013; 309(5): 48–53. Available at: https://linguistics.ucla.edu/people/hayes/Teaching/papers/PaperIsBetterScientificAmerican20 13.pdf (accessed 3 August 2020).