Digital burnout

Digital Burnout: The Dangers of Being Constantly Contactable

More and more people are complaining of stress in their jobs and the number of people suffering from burnout is steadily increasing. These problems are exacerbated by the excessive use of mobile phones that now permeates our society. We are more contactable than ever before – even in our free time and on holidays we often remain plugged in. Unsurprisingly, at some point it all gets too much. The result? Emotional and mental exhaustion through digital burnout. Professor Alexander Markowetz analysed the behaviour of 60,000 mobile phone users and found that on average we spend three hours each day on our smart phones – picking them up at least 55 times per day. Not only that, we are often distracted and fail to concentrate on what we are doing. How you can avoid digital burnout and what you as a manager should watch out for is highlighted here by Norbert Hüge from DBVD in an interview with Experteer Magazine.

Digital burnout

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Mr Hüge, what makes constant smartphone use so dangerous and can it lead to burnout? What effects does being constantly contactable have on our health and our communities?

Hüge: The stream of information we are subject to on a daily basis is ever increasing. Our smart phones inform us of everything that is happening around the world in real time. Many people find it difficult to filter this flow of information and decide what is important and what is not. Every interruption from an email or sms is a distraction that takes us away from what we were doing and breaks our concentration. This can be avoided by putting your mobile phone in a drawer while you are at work and not taking it out again for extended periods of time. It is human nature to want to belong to a group. Social networks like Facebook fulfill our need to belong. We want to be involved and do not want to miss anything. When I receive an sms from a friend I feel validated and liked. The question remains however, can we experience community and friendship in other ways?

When we allow ourselves to be continuously contactable, we are placing ourselves under pressure, which results in stress. This stress is dangerous for our health and well-being. It is no longer possible for us to simply switch-off and allow ourselves to take a break. In today’s achievement orientated society it is looked upon negatively to be idle for any period of time. However, these breaks are important for our imagination and creativity. We can devote ourselves to things that bring us pleasure – like sports, meeting friends, painting, or reading a book. The list is endless. Through unending outside influence we lose connection with our inner voice, which tells us what we really enjoy doing. This can call into question the usefulness of our own actions and work.

How effective are we at work when we are constantly chatting, posting, tweeting, sending sms’s and checking our email?

Hüge: Our brain is not designed to multi-task. Our concentration suffers when we try to do too many things at the same time. We are better able to solve complex tasks at work when we are not interrupted. It takes about 18 minutes for our brains to focus on a task and concentrate on complex business matters. Studies in Germany reveal people reach for their mobile phone every 15 minutes. You can imagine how productively and effectively we are working, if we need 18 minutes to truly submerge ourselves in a topic, but are being constantly interrupted. It is not only our mobile phones that are disturbing us, notifications which appear on our computer screens are also breaking our concentration. It pays to turn these notification off immediately. 25 percent of German workers have admitted to feeling stressed out by interruptions at work.

How can I recognise if I am headed for a digital burnout? What are the warning signs?

Hüge: This question should not only be aimed at digital burnout, it should also ask at what point it becomes an addiction. These days, people already attempt fasts from their mobile phones, in the same way they do from things like sweets and alcohol. But to answer your question: Am I feeling a lack of concentration, or do I have the feeling that I can no longer effectively undertake my projects at work? Do I experience sleep disturbances? Are there any other physical symptoms? It makes sense to take notice of the daily influences that I am subjected to. Am I interrupted often by emails or am I reaching constantly for my mobile phone to see if someone sent me a message?

What can we do to counteract this phenomenon? What are the solutions?

Hüge: On one side it requires a change in behaviour, and on the other, action from organisations. Some companies have already banned staff from sending and reading emails outside of certain hours. It is problematic when people think they have to keep reading emails until midnight, in order to be prepared and informed for work the next day. We need to realise that everyone has the right to be unreachable at times. There are also companies that put the responsibility on the employee. In my opinion that is not enough. Some employees will find it difficult to resist reading a work related email after 10pm on the weekend. In this case the employee needs some protection from the company.

What should executives and managers be aware of in their approach towards their employees?

Hüge: Executives and managers need to be able to recognise warning signs from themselves and their employees. Being aware of the topic is the first important step. Managers and executives should set an example for their employees. This will make it easier to talk to your employees about the phenomenon. Additionally, seminars about dealing with stress at work are helpful for bringing light to this topic. By doing this you will create an organisational culture where health is valued on all levels across the company.

In a world where the pace of life is ever increasing, how can we find work/life balance without compromising our jobs?

Hüge: It is important to be able to identify factors which impact on your personal well being. By recognising what triggers stress, you can make an effort to avoid these factors. How you balance your work and personal life depends on your job and personal interests. For example, if you have a desk job, it would make sense to engage in physical activity in your free time. A healthy balance between relaxation and effort is good for your health and productivity.

Thank you very much for your time Mr Hüge!

Conclusion: Less is more

Managers and executives should be aware that their employees require time after work, on weekends, and on their holidays to switch off from work and retreat from the digital world in order to recharge their batteries. The same goes for the managers and executives themselves. Being reachable outside of work hours should only happen in the case of an extremely important project, and should not become a regular occurrence. Furthermore, healthy employees are considerably more productive as those who are constantly under strain. It is an expensive situation for employers when an employee can not come to work for a period of time because they are suffering from burnout.


About the author 

Markus Hofelich

Markus Hofelich is an business and finance journalist who lives with his family south of Munich. His journalistic experience includes working as editor-in-chief for the German business magazine Unternehmeredition from GoingPublic Media AG. He was also head of the editorial department at DIV Deutscher Industrieverlag and deputy editor-in-chief at Cash. Markus Hofelich has a masters degree in International and Cultural Business and studied at the University of Passau and the Sorbonne in Paris. After further education in Online Marketing and Social Media Management at the ptm Akademie he founded the website www.SinndesLebens24.de, an online magazine for philosophy, happiness and motivation this year and is now on the lookout for new challenges.


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