Technology has given us more flexibility in how we work than ever before, and for that, our mental well-being has definitely improved. We know that the human brain can only tolerate so much stimulation before reaching overload. To combat this, we change our environment to avoid burning out, giving ourselves a fresh atmosphere in which to thrive. This helps us stay in the "flow," that state of mind where employees not only do their best work, but enjoy it the most. Technology has untethered us from the static workstation. 

However, there's a dark side to that bright screen when it comes to employee well-being.

Always Available Means Never a Break

Technology is designed to keep us focused on it. When it comes to the workplace, there are two seemingly finite resources: time and attention. Always being connected to the office via email, or smartphones, or remote access leaves a blurred line between work and life for employees. Sure, the employee may get more done in a given day because they spend their evenings answering late-day emails, but they are more likely to resent the expectation that they have no time off to relax, recharge their batteries, and reconnect with their families. Deloitte research recently suggested there's a law of diminishing returns for the always-on employee. That employee's value is eroded by increased cognitive load and reduced employee performance and mental happiness. There is a noticeable tipping point before the employee begins to feel frazzled, overworked, and stretched too thin to perform their job effectively.

We may be free of our desks, but we're not free of the work, and by extension, of the burden that comes with it. This applies to the freshly-employed recent grads all the way up the ladder to the CEO. No one is immune from information overload. It used to be those who worked from morning to night were working class, and the upper class were those who had leisure time because they could afford it. Now, cultural norms have turned those employees who are always on, always working, always accessible into the important people, the ones without whom the business will fail. It's a sign of higher social status, and it's mentally unhealthy for all of us.

The Compulsion to Check In

While some of tech's design is intentionally made compulsive--those app developers want us to stay on their app--the habits we've formed in checking our phones, checking our email, and checking our texts are wearing us down. These behaviors are becoming so inherent to some employees that they're skewing toward the markers of addiction. With the right behavioral and technological interventions, and the right awareness, employees are able to learn moderation and employ countermeasures themselves to keep this behavior from becoming problematic. But awareness of it is key.

In the digital age, notifications and alerts are part of the problem. There's tremendous pressure to check our follower numbers, mentions, tags, and likes. We can count our steps, our calories, our breaths. At work, we tally unanswered emails, notifications for upcoming meetings, chat and text messages, and more. Throughout the workday, the stream of interruptions is constant. 

The University of California, Irvine conducted a study on how much impact interruptions have on workers, and they found that it takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds to recover from an interruption. Over the course of a day, and with something as little as a notification chime that pulls their attention to an email that must be answered or a phone call that must be taken, that can have a terrible impact on the employee's output and productivity. It increases stress, pressure to work faster, and effort it takes to get a task done. Employers not only glean less productivity from their workers, but they also don't get the best work. There's not as much time to weigh the pros and cons of decisions, and creative solutions are less prolific.

Scarcity Mindset

There's only so much attention and time available in a given day. Employees forced to spread their attention over too much information made available through technology are faced with an abundance of choice. Too many choices actually leads to less cognitive processing unless there are clear environmental cues, default choices, or a help function to guide their decision making.

The perfect example of this is in videoconferencing and virtual meeting schedules. Often, meetings are set days in advance, and the organizers invite more people than those necessary for the subject matter in order not to leave out someone with an important role in the outcome. The recipients of the invitation accept these meetings in what looks like a lightly scheduled timeframe days in advance, even if the subject matter doesn't seem related to them. There's fear of missing out, but there's also an ingrained desire to be a team player and help out, and by declining, the employee would be marking themselves less productive and helpful. Time goes by and a few more meetings are scheduled, and the employee's time fills up. Before they know it, they're in back-to-back meetings with no time to complete what they've got on their plate, and they weren't really needed in the first place. They either spend their day not doing their required work, or multitasking, which diminishes their attention both on the meeting and on their work.

The technology has made it so easy to schedule, invite, and accept meetings, people are becoming far less productive because of it. 

This takes a toll on cognition, giving the employee much less chance of finding their flow while adding to the pressure they feel to do their jobs. People who are scarce on time and attention experience a drop in the ability to actually do their work, resulting in a need to work longer hours and sacrifice that important work-life balance just to stay afloat.

Physical Manifestation of Tech Overload

By now, we all know the bright screens of our devices trick our brains into thinking it's daytime when we use them right before bedtime, and many phone manufacturers have compensated for this by offering a "nighttime" personal setting that removes blue from the screen light. But that doesn't compensate for the sleep technology steals from us. The always-on mentality has employees checking their phones last thing before bed to ensure there's not a crisis, and first thing upon waking to get a bead on the day ahead. There's little recharge time, and it's eating into the 7-9 recommended sleep hours we need to maintain good health.

We're also lonelier because of technology. Sure, we're able to speak to people across time zones and in other countries, but often it's at the expense of face-to-face interaction, which we as a species need. During our in-person interactions, if our phones chime any notifications, we check them to the detriment of those face-to-face interactions. Families and friends often feel neglected, and our social structure suffers because of it

The Fix for Technology Overload

Many of the programs and apps people use are designed to stimulate the reward centers of our brains so that we physically can't simply "put the phone down," as some skeptics of tech addiction advise. These rewards mimic the positive chemical reactions we get which are designed to tell us we've found a rich food source or we've achieved a high level of exercise accomplishment. It can be as powerful as a physical drug addiction.

Cognitive and behavioral sciences are finding that tweaks in our environments can help fight technology overload. The combination of better workplace design--multiple environments that encourage specific types or work, such as quiet rooms for focus, collaboration areas for team building and multi-person projects, and natural elements such as good lighting or a garden space for better access to the outdoors--and conscientious technology choices that include well-being of employees in their design are showing promising results. These techniques are called behavioral "nudges," such as when healthy foods are more prominently arranged than unhealthy ones. The choices are all still there, but the behavior is influenced by what is better for the individual.

Use the Data for Good

It's possible to track details about employees' work habits that can help fight technology overload. Insights such as how fast emails are opened can tell an employer how people are able to work throughout their day. If one employee opens every email within five minutes, it's pretty clear the inbox is a pressure they feel the need to keep up with religiously. By tracking things like open times, amount of time spent in one particular program, the number of pick-ups one makes of their smartphone, and the amount of time after regular working hours employees spend doing work related tasks, employers can implement well-being focused policies intent on improving the relationship employees have with the technology that helps them do their jobs. But these metrics have to be used for the betterment of the employee. If workers feel they're in a "big brother" environment, there's no well-being to be found. But reminders that workers have been focused for a while and maybe could use a stretch or a walk, or AI technology that can sort emails into levels of importance, and only push the urgent ones to a smartphone's notification screen, can be incredibly helpful to employee well-being.

An effective method of resetting the always-on mentality is to show comparisons between employees. At first nod, this sounds horrible, but with the right focus, it can really help. For example, if the workers in a company have the impression everyone works 60 hours a week, they're all going to try to keep up with that. But if that impression is countered by the reality that no, everyone's working between 40 and 45 hours, that pressure to push themselves unnecessarily will be reduced. 

Changing Norms

The always-on mentality has abounded because employees feel they're expected to be available all the time. For this to change, employers need to adopt a more employee-centric perspective, and nudge their employees into less harmful behaviors. Adopt policies that discourage emails sent outside of business hours. Reduce default meeting lengths by 5 minutes to encourage employee breaks. Offer a well-being pledge your employees can sign to indicate they're going to revamp the way they use technology, so they know it's okay not to be constantly available, and there are choices they can make to take care of themselves that will not harm their standing with their company. After all, there's no productivity in a burned-out employee.  

Published on: Sep 18, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.