For Your Benefit

The Ills of Too Much Tech

Diminished personal well-being and muted social connections are just two workplace effects.

By Andie Burjek

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t’s impossible to ignore the benefits that technology plays in people’s lives, but there are also underlying negative effects. Look no further than the workplace, where employees and leaders alike may feel duty bound to respond to emails at night or be available around the clock via their digital device.

“I see this tug of war between, ‘I want to leave my phone behind’ but also looking at it from a very positive light which is, ‘Technology is truly an enabler in what you want to achieve in your health and wellness,’ ” said Swati Matta, director of member engagement and health at employee benefits company League Inc.

Although there are many digital wellness plans available now, employers also are instituting onsite programs to ensure that employees are taking time out of their day to disconnect, she said.

Being constantly connected contributes to depression and anxiety, according to the “2018 Global Wellness Trends” report from the Global Wellness Summit. It reports that human connection is a strong driver of happiness and that 2018 is the year when people will acknowledge the ways in which tech is making them feel ill and strive to reclaim peace of mind.

Organizations should recognize if they’ve either implicitly or explicitly created an environment that signals to employees that they must always be on.

In response, League is trying a few things to renew a sense of workplace humanity including walking meetings.

“It’s interesting because when you’re doing these walking meetings, while obviously stacking up on your steps, you’re also instilling this culture that it’s OK to step away from your desk, and you can have a meeting when you’re away from your meeting notes … or whatever you use to have a conversation,” Matta said.

Through its Health at Work program, League works with clients to identify goals and build custom wellness programs, which can include aspects like 10 minutes set aside once a week for meditation or massages. The organization also offers this program to its employees, which is another part of its well-being strategy.

Employees appreciate the connections they have with others at work, and although they don’t fear technology itself, they may be apprehensive that the changing workplace will put them in a position where they can’t connect with others, according to Todd Katz, executive vice president at insurance giant MetLife.

“If employers preserve that sense of connection in the workplace, our view is that companies will be in a better position to recruit and retain. They’re also going to get better engagement, productivity and loyalty,” Katz said.

Swati Matta

As disconnecting becomes increasingly attractive to people, the oxymoronic “tech-fighting tech” has been trending in the general wellness space, the “2018 Global Wellness Trends” report also stated. This includes apps like Off the Grid, which allows users to block their phone for any amount of time, and The Moment, which lets people set daily time limits on devices.

Such tech tools are already being used in the workplace, according to Autumn Krauss, principal scientist, human capital management research at SAP SuccessFactors.

The Thrive Away app — developed by Arianna Huffington’s wellness company Thrive Global — deletes new emails a person receives while on vacation, she said. Companies can also restrict sending emails during off hours or create computer pop-ups with messages like “Take 10 minutes to stretch.” Other companies may have their computers lock after a certain amount of time so employees can take a break to step away from the computer.

Krauss said there is value in such solutions but they come with flaws. Employees’ responsibilities continue, so a stretching reminder may come in the middle of conducting a webinar. Or, an employee may leave early to pick up their child from school and find that not being able to send emails at night makes work-life balance more difficult.

“If we really want companies to think about how they can help employees disconnect, that comes from a cultural perspective, and that’s where I’ve seen a lot of this work done,” Krauss said.

Organizations should recognize if they’ve either implicitly or explicitly created an environment that signals to employees that they must always be on, she said. Often, executives set the example by regularly working weekends, taking meetings early in the morning or conference calls late in the evening.

Having coached executives, Krauss said she’s had conversations about re-establishing their own behavior when it comes to these habits. Leaders could work to change such habits, for example by not taking a meeting before 9 a.m. and communicating clearly with the overall workforce in a compelling way that this is acceptable behavior.

“Role-modeling is going to be the first part of this process,” Krauss said, adding that employers should consider how they can cultivate a change in what’s expected of employees through executive communication, leadership behavior and the norms created and reinforced in the office environment.