People & Leadership

How to help your employees tackle digital burnout and improve work-life balance

Learn how to identify digital burnout and ensure that your people are better equipped to achieve a work-life balance.

Digital burnout is on the rise.

With more people than ever working from home, the growth of ‘always on’ culture and an increasing need to improve productivity, it’s hardly surprising that more and more people are feeling stressed and exhausted.

Sitting at a screen has its uses but it can feel overwhelming if you find yourself doing it for too long each day – especially if those days include weekends and holidays.

How can small business owners manage the problem of digital fatigue for their employees and themselves?

In this article, we cover how to spot digital burnout, managing the challenge of improving productivity, and how to help your employees improve their work-life balance.

Here’s what we cover:

The impact of the pandemic

The aftermath of the pandemic continues to have a profound influence on the way we work.

A new survey from Acas has found that three in five employers (60%) have seen an increase in hybrid working for employees compared to before the pandemic.

Flexible working and working from home avoid the need for lengthy commutes, saving time and money and alleviating stress. Many people appreciate the ability to manage their working hours more easily around childcare or care of elderly relatives.

Taking time out for a walk or a visit to the gym and compensating by starting the working day a bit earlier or finishing later is also good for many people.

However, for most of us, working from home and flexible working can result in less time spent in personal contact with colleagues and more time spent on the computer.

If, for instance, you’re regularly working from home now, how long have you spent looking at a screen so far today? If you don’t know then perhaps you should.

Either way it might feel as if it’s been too long.

Most of us have found ourselves spending more time online and less time face to face with colleagues, customers and suppliers since Covid struck.

How to spot digital burnout

Digital burnout can manifest itself in a number of ways.

It might be exhaustion or mental and physical tension as well as feelings of anxiety. Staring at screen requires a different type of energy to that needed when we meet in person.

Add to that a flurry of emails and other notifications that pop up on the screen and it’s hardly surprising that headaches, tension and stiffness as well as feelings of disengagement and boredom and an inability to concentrate on a task can become more common.

A report by Microsoft published in 2021 illustrates some of the challenges.

According to a survey included in The Next Great Disruption Is Hybrid Work—Are We Ready?, time spent in Microsoft Teams meetings rose by two-and-a-half times globally, while the average meeting is 10 minutes longer than pre-lockdown, increasing from 35 to 45 minutes.

More worryingly, the report suggests that business leaders are often faring better than their teams, many of whom are struggling.

While nearly two thirds (61%) of business leaders said that they were “thriving” and just over a third (39%) were “surviving” or “struggling”, the figure for frontline workers, for instance, was exactly the opposite with just 40% of Gen Z “thriving” and 60% “surviving” or “struggling”.

According to Jared Spataro, corporate vice president at Microsoft 365: “With remote work, there are fewer chances to ask employees, ‘Hey, how are you?’ and then pick up on important cues as they respond.

“But the data is clear: our people are struggling. And we need to find new ways to help them.”

The report delves into productivity – a continuing concern for business leaders.

Here, although self-assessed productivity remained the same or higher for many employees at 82% over the past year, one in five survey respondents reported that their employer didn’t care about their work-life balance and 54% percent felt overworked, while 39% felt exhausted.

The productivity challenge

Working long hours at a computer is often associated with an attempt to improve productivity.

But having teams spending more time in front of a computer almost certainly isn’t the way to improve productivity.

Although there’s little consensus among experts on the solution to the productivity problem, in a poll conducted by the London School of Economics (LSE) among economists, nearly two thirds of those asked (63%) suggested investments in human capital, such as education and job retraining.

This theory has been reflected in other research and think tank reports.

Of the economists interviewed for the LSE, Thorsten Beck, formerly at Cass Business School and now director at the European University Institute, argued that: “Improvements in technical skills would be a long-term solution to support a well-trained working population and thus also improve productivity growth.”

According to Panicos Demetriades, professor of financial economics at the University of Leicester School of Business, investment in education “is the most direct way to improve skills and human capital once we first ensure that the best talent isn’t diverted into unproductive activities”.

More training and education as well as ensuring that teams are working efficiently and are focused on tasks that bring a financial return is clearly a better and more effective way of improving productivity than having them staring at a screen for longer hours.

How you can help your employees improve their work-life balance

It’s essential to allow your employees to be honest if they’re suffering from digital burnout or similar forms of stress and overwork.

You should remind your employees that asking for help is a sign of strength and confidence not of weakness.

Here’s a few things to try with your people…

1. Check in with your people

Your team leaders need to be able to check in regularly with your people, and they should be trained in how to identify mental health problems such as anxiety or depression.

Encouraging people to make the time for breaks and to take their holidays is also important.

2. Use tech to manage people processes

A good cloud HR software package can be useful to manage holiday bookings and to ensure that employees can easily book their time off.

The latest software systems mean that managers and their teams can handle requests and approvals for annual leave and track them in share calendars and reports.

For added flexibility, these solutions can also create customised holiday and annual leave policies, and your employees can access them via the web or an app.

There are other ways to avoid digital and online exhaustion.

3. Consider switching off notifications

“Encourage your teams to turn off their notifications – not just for their newsfeeds either: emails, Slack, Teams – all of it,” says Rob Bravo, coaching director and head of wellbeing at Talking Talent, which helps top businesses accelerate advancement for under-represented talent.

“Start off with an hour a day, or on Friday afternoons.

“Not only will this remind people the world won’t end if they don’t reply to that email instantly, but it gives them the chance to get some deep work done. And if this is organisation-wide or, at the very least, department-wide, employees will feel able to commit.”

4. Rethink the notion of working hard

Bravo advises people to reframe their thoughts about how hard they work.

“I often tell my coachees not to strive for work-life balance,” he says. “Instead, we should own a work-life choice, recognising there are consequences of the choices we make.

“It’s a subtle but empowering switch, and helps people feel more in control of their world, rather than letting external events control them.

“For example, maybe Jane from accounts knows she has a busy week coming up, so makes an active choice to work an hour extra every day. Instead of framing this as ‘failing’ to keep her work-life balance in check, she owns the decision of choosing to work late.

“Mental health starts to spiral when circumstances control us. And taking back agency is a solid step towards protecting ourselves.”

How employees can develop a healthy routine

As well as taking regular breaks and creating a distinct workspace at home that’s free from distractions, Suzie Hughes, HR & operations director at Gleeson Recruitment Group recommends developing a healthy work-from-home routine during the week.

“Take advantage of no commuting times by using the hour before work to do something for you such as exercising, reading a book or simply having breakfast with the family,” she says.

“Once you’re at the desk, make writing a to-do list a ritual. This should include prioritising your tasks and putting time stamps on each job so that you don’t feel overwhelmed or stressed about the day ahead.”

Jamie Styles, director of people & culture at digital mental healthcare provider Koa Health, says: “Support often starts with a conversation. HR leaders must continue to encourage open dialogue about burnout and its impacts on mental health.

The benefits associated with these conversations allow us to better cope with challenges and boost resilience.

Employee resource groups purely focused on mental health create a safe space for people to talk and share their personal experiences in dealing with their own wellbeing.”

He adds: “By providing a suite of comprehensive solutions which cover the full spectrum of conditions, HR can help mitigate the lagging mental health impacts of the pandemic, including employee stress caused by workload.

“A workforce with stronger mental wellbeing is more likely to have stronger morale, greater productivity, and reduced burnout, sick leave and staff churn.”

Supporting your people with new ways of working

Working from home and flexible working are evolving rapidly and challenging many traditionally working practices.

As well as challenges such as digital burnout, they also provide opportunities.

Employers need to be prepared to rethink their employment practices and adopt new policies and technologies to make the most of these new ways of working.

How to attract, engage and keep great people

Discover how to find and retain the best talent so your business can keep growing and thriving.

Download your free guide

Subscribe to the Sage Advice newsletter

Join 1.5 million subscribers and get the best business admin strategies and tactics, as well as actionable advice to help your company thrive, in your inbox every month.