In early March 2021 Laura was interviewed by John Waterfield, KPMG’s Strategic Relationships Director, for their new podcast The Virtual Commute where she talked about why digital wellbeing and management is so critical now and the role of the employee and the leader in building a healthy digital workplace culture. Listen to the 20 minute interview here.
As the global Coronavirus situation continues to unfold many of us are now working from home. This comes with its challenges for all. But for those with children this can be even trickier – whether you are home schooling little ones or trying to cope with volatile teens. As parents of young children ourselves, the Shine Offline team are in this boat with those of you out there who are trying to work out how you are going to do your work, deal with your children and maintain your sanity!
There are lots of people offering advice online on keep kids entertained in the coming weeks and months – what a perfect example of the positive power of digital technology! Our focus at Shine Offline is specifically on digital wellbeing. Time and time again we get programme participants asking us for advice for positive parenting in a digital age. We aren’t experts in this field – it is a very different ball game and there are many psychologists and specialists out there who have great books and podcasts on the topic.
In this current climate though we feel it is our duty to share our own knowledge and personal practises with anyone struggling with making sure their kids aren’t spending all day on screens. So here we go…!
- Be realistic. We are experiencing an unprecedented situation and a huge amount of stress. Our children have their own digital behaviours and in a time of upheaval they will want to spend time on their devices whether to entertain, to game, to escape from own feelings of stress or to connect with friends. Also, if you have work to do, especially if you have younger children, getting them to spend some time playing on their iPad or watching cbeebies will come in very handy
- Don’t demonise the technology – this is something we are very passionate about at Shine Offline. Celebrating digital technology and using it to improve our lives and experiences. Rather than worrying about the repercussions of too much screen time focus on how you could encourage your kids to use the technology with real intention and purpose. Could they make funny stop motion videos on a tablet? Play a game online with friends? And who has been enjoying Joe Wick’s youtube PE lessons??!
- Create new guidelines for the home – these will depend on who is living in your house, their ages, current digital behaviours, etc but some things to bear in mind:
• Set time limits for younger children’s screen time and use a stopwatch or egg timer to manage this. And always give the 10 and 5 min warnings!
• If you have older children who are used to spending quite a lot of the weekend on their phone or other device put yourself in their shoes. Being at home = screen time. That is what is normal for them. And also their worlds have turned upside down too so having some solace online isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Keep an eye on the gaming but it can also help to reduce stress and get them interacting with their friends. And in times of crisis connecting with your friends is more important than ever.
• Make sure they are aware of the importance of screen free time for their mental health and to watch out for fake news, gossip and online Chinese whispers which could add to their stress and overwhelm
• Consider writing some screen management guidelines together. These could include screen time times in the day and areas in the home; time limits on screen activity; digital sundown and sunrise times – with devices being kept outside everyone’s bedroom in a central location.
- Lead by example – your children will be looking to you in the coming days to guide and reassure them. Being mindful of your own digital behaviour, know when to disconnect from work and sticking to your new family rules and supporting each other if you are struggling will be more important than ever.
These are frightening and uncertain times. For many of us we have become acutely aware that our relationships with others is what really matters in life. The distractions and entertainment possibilities that technology offers can drive us all in different directions under the same roof if we retreat into individual screens. Periods of abstinence from phones and social media as a family have the potential to bring you closer together. Talk around the dinner table. Play a board game. Curl up for a movie. In these troubling times, parents have an opportunity to redefine family life and carve out a new way of living for the younger generation.
For more information visit one of the experts on managing you children’s screen time at www.internetmatters.com
Good luck everyone.
Big or small, global or local, the same themes play themselves out when it comes to desk-based workers and the issues they have around their digital wellbeing and management. One recurring theme that is causing problems for most people is the role their email plays, the impact it has on their ability to concentrate, and the overwhelm it can cause inside work and out.
An amazing tool that has transformed the way people communicate email has brought a host of benefits to the working world. But with these come a host of downsides. An invention that was supposed to replace the fax machine and make communication much quicker and simpler is causing stress for millions of people every day. Theorists, experts and researchers are claiming that the reactionary mode many people are in, spending their day responding to emails and not being in control of their own schedules, is untenable and that something has to change.
While we wait for the shake-up and the “email revolution” there is a lot you can do to take back control of your day and improve your relationship with your inbox. Below we have outlined our favourite hacks for Outlook. Click here to read an excellent article on Computer World on better management of Gmail.
- Turn off email notifications to avoid your attention getting pulled away every time you get a new message
You are chatting on a conference call or finalising the report it’s taken you a week to get around to and a little envelope appears on your screen. You Got Mail!! Don’t get me wrong, I love a bit of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, but when you’re trying to focus the temptation to “just have a little check” to see what has come in is sometimes overwhelming. We get a little dopamine hit every time we engage in online activity and email is no different. The slot machine effect is in full flow here. That envelope appears, you don’t know what the message is going to be – good news, bad news, a round robin about cups piling up in the office kitchen sink – and that uncertainty keeps us checking. So take back some control, turn off the notifications, and when you want to retrieve your mail hit send/receive all folders.
Outlook – File > Options > Mail > Message arrival – decide if you want any form of notification or none at all. We would advise turning them off completely.
- Work offline when you need to concentrate to stop the flow of new emails
This simple technique transformed the way that I work and is so straightforward to do – and yet when you ask a room of workshop participants who use Outlook as their email service if they know how to do this 9 times out of 10 they don’t.
I spend most of my day with my email in offline mode which means I can view the email window, all the folders, even compose an email, but no new messages will come in because I’m “offline”. This allows me to focus my mind and stay in control of my own attention.
Outlook – go to ‘send/receive’ and then click ‘work offline’. A little red X will appear over your outlook icon on the bottom of your screen. When you’re ready to go back online and allow the emails to come in simply click the ‘work offline’ icon in Outlook.
- Schedule email delivery so that you are sending messages at an appropriate time
We live in an agile, flexible working world which has resulted in many people being more in control of their working schedules and deciding when they want to work. For many this can be evenings and weekends as the mobility of their digital technology has resulted in a loss of ‘hard edges’ marking the end of work and the start of personal time. A great perk for people who want a blended life but the downsides are huge. You’ve had a day of meetings and have just finished dinner and are taking a couple of hours to catch up with emails. You’re firing responses out and composing some new ones. You don’t intend anyone to reply – you’re just doing what suits you. But that is unclear to the colleagues you are messaging. And if in a position of seniority this out of hours email behaviour can creation uncertainty amongst the team about what is expected from them in regards to out of hours communication – the very act of opening an email in an evening or on a weekend puts the recipient in work mode. Using the “Delay Delivery” function in Outlook allows you to embargo your email. This means you can click “Send” and have that task checked off your to-do list, but the message will not be delivered until the scheduled time you have chosen e.g. the start of business hours the next business day. One thing to remember is that you need to be online for any scheduled emails to be delivered – don’t get caught out expecting something to go at 8.30 if you haven’t turned your laptop on. Another option is to save the email as a draft and send later.
Outlook – click New Email > Options > Delay Delivery > Select date and time you’d like to send the message in the Do not deliver before section > Click Close > press Send.
- Re-think the cc to help reduce your own and your colleagues’ overwhelm
Ccing colleagues in is standard email practice these days. People want to include relevant team members in a message to ensure everyone is abreast of what’s happening. An excellent tool if used appropriately, overuse of the cc has resulted in over-crowded inboxes and an uncertainty around what is important mail and what is just for reference. Next time to are about to cc a host of people in a message stop and really consider if they all need to be included. We know from many people we’ve worked with that changing your view on cc use can have an unbelievably positive impact on the amount of emails you will receive – and also help to prevent email overload for the people you are communicating with. One senior manager we worked with was feeling overwhelmed by her inbox and so told her people “I trust you. Please don’t cc me in as standard”. The result? A 60% decrease in the amount of internal email traffic she received, less email overload on her part, and a sense of empowerment for her team.
- Manage post-holiday overload by using the Clean-Up function
Back to work after a well-needed rest and check me out – I didn’t go into my inbox the whole time. A proper break! Amazing. Flipside? 300 emails waiting for you in your inbox. Before you press “delete all” consider using Outlook’s clever Clean-up function which removes all email replies that are duplicated in a later thread, allowing you to read a single thread instead of dozens of individual emails. What this means is that you won’t waste time re-reading information and can cut to the chase in one email thread. Super. Rest assured: the tool is sophisticated and will not delete any emails with attachments or text that aren’t exactly duplicated in later threads, and you can always review deleted items in the trash folder if needed.
Outlook: Home > clean up > clean up folder
Hopefully you can see how at least one of these tips will help you start to adjust your email behaviour and begin a new, healthier relationship with your inbox. Good luck!
As work returns to “normal” after the August summer holidays, employers need to revisit whether, in a world of smartphones and “always on” connectivity, workers are actually getting a proper break from work while on holiday, argues Laura Willis.
The traditional August summer holiday period is now, for many of us, rapidly fading into memory and, as work cranks back into “normal” mode, it can at times seem like you never went away.
We all know there is nothing quite like two weeks in the sun to blow away the cobwebs and recalibrate. Lying by the pool, finishing that book, a day exploring some ruins, or just lots and lots of sleep and lazing around.
However, whether you took a break over the summer or are planning to beat the inflated school holiday prices by getting away this autumn, the real challenge from a health and wellbeing perspective is actually just getting away from that little device in your pocket or handbag.
These days we carry “the office” around with us. Digital technology, and in particular our smartphones, have brought so much flexibility to our working lives resulting in there being no need to be tethered to the desk to do our jobs.
The flipside to this, however, is a growing inability to properly disconnect from work outside of office hours – be that evenings, weekends or on our annual leave – and the growing worry among health and wellbeing professionals of the negative impact this may potentially be having on people.
Inability to disconnect
Studies are already showing the impact of our inability to disconnect from work and constantly checking in to the office through digital devices.
For example, the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development/Simplyhealth 2018 Health and Wellbeing report highlighted that 87% of people reported that an inability to switch off had a negative impact on their wellbeing.
More recently, research in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health concluded that working longer hours and weekends contributed to worse mental health.
The World Health Organization, too, has argued that by next year work-related stress and burnout will be amongst the world’s most prevalent diseases; in fact it has even classed burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” within its 11th revision of its International Classification of Diseases for the first time. The lack of boundaries many of us feel around our work technology is undoubtedly a hugely contributing factor to this.
The psychological rest you experience during a period of annual leave simply isn’t the same if you are checking your inbox regularly either because of an expectation from your employer or a self-imposed obligation.
If we are to perform at our best, and maintain some level of work-life balance, which is essential to our wellbeing, then it is imperative we bring some sense of control to how we are using our inboxes and other workplace communications.
So, what is the answer? At an organisational level businesses need to start to address this issue properly. Rather than what is often a wishy-washy, unspoken issue in most workplaces, employers need to consider putting some standards in place for staff so that they understand the need to have a proper break from work.
The relationship people have with their inboxes is often complex and companies need to support their staff to know they can and should disconnect from work. Putting the topic on the HR agenda and instilling a level of enforcement is key.
In the banking sector, for example, employees are forced to take two weeks’ holiday annually with no online contact so their employer can carry out necessary fraud checks. The unintended consequence is employees must step off the hamster wheel and take a proper break. If banking can survive this, there is little reason why others cannot follow suit.
At individual level employees need to reflect on the impact their constant contact with the office is having when they are trying to enjoy some downtime with family and friends.
One of the simplest choices all employees can make, regardless of their work or personal commitments, is to own two separate phones – one for work and one for personal.
By creating this very clear digital boundary workers can start to feel in control of their time and put appropriate rules in place as to when they are and are not going to be contactable.
Communicating the necessity and intention to take a real break is also important so colleagues’ expectations can be managed. A colleague who makes it clear they won’t be checking their inbox whilst they are away, and so should only be called in the event of a true emergency, is unambiguous about their intention to disconnect.
Businesses with their eye on the future, who are taking the health of their employees seriously, are already starting to put digital wellbeing on the agenda. As the world continues to get faster, and connectivity becomes ever-more the norm, is the time for employers to ensure their people are embracing their annual leave – whenever they take it – so that they return to work feeling rejuvenated, refreshed and ready to continue to give their very best.
Health and well-being at work, CIPD and Simplyhealth, 2018, https://www.cipd.co.uk/knowledge/culture/well-being/health-well-being-work
Weston at al (2019). Long work hours, weekend working and depressive symptoms in men and women: findings from a UK population-based study, Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, available online at https://jech.bmj.com/content/jech/early/2019/02/08/jech-2018-211309.full.pdf
Burn-out an “occupational phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases, May 2019, World Health Organization, https://www.who.int/mental_health/evidence/burn-out/en/
We’re all distracted. The problem is everywhere. On trains, in restaurants, in homes, in business meetings and at conferences the temptation to check your inbox, tweet your thoughts or research something is too great for most people. It’s normal now for people watching TV in the sanctuary of their homes to be invited to “get involved” with the movie or programme rather than just sit back, relax and be entertained. At work, laptops are the constant companion of most people in meetings and with new emails or slack chats coming through whilst we are physically present our minds are often pulled away from the people we are with. What does this mean? Our attention spans are shorter, many of us feel overwhelmed by the constant stream of information, and our focus and productivity are suffering. And a state of continuous partial attention means interactions with those around us can remain shallow.
This isn’t going to go away. Technology is continuing to develop at a faster and faster rate and it is up to us to take responsibility for our own attention, wellbeing, our own tolerance for information, and make the appropriate changes to ensure we have a balanced and controlled use of tech rather than feeling it is controlling us.
Mindfulness is central to Shine Offline’s ethos of understanding our relationships with our digital technology and using our devices in an intentional way that supports our goals and values. We understand the impact digital distractions are having on people’s lives but also know that this is the world we live in and that it is up to us as individuals to each manage the role it plays, how we deal with it and how much we can handle.
Reasons why mindfulness is invaluable to thrive in today’s always-on world.
It helps you to exercise your attention
The origins of mindfulness are in Buddhism but for many people these days, including the team at Shine Offline, it is practised in a secular form. Many mindfulness teachers would describe the practise as brain training. A workout for the mind. When we practice mindfulness what we are doing is finding an anchor for our attention, usually the breath as a starting point, and bringing our attention back here every time our mind wanders. Practising this exercise regularly builds our “attention muscle” and ability to focus. It is neuroplasticity in practice – the brain changes depending on how you use it and regular meditators are found to have very different brains to people who never practice mindfulness. In a world designed to distract us, with notifications pinging and live chats streaming, exercising this part of our brains is invaluable in managing our own attention.
It increases our awareness of our thoughts and behaviour
Humans live on autopilot much of the time and one behaviour that has become automated for many people is checking. Checking the phone, inbox, slack, news, social media. The mobility of our digital technology has resulted in it being very easy to check our devices, and the work and personal information coming through on them, constantly. The simple practise of mindfulness can help to increase our awareness of our thoughts and behaviours and in turn help us to change them. Through the regular mindfulness practice of coming back to the breath whenever our minds wander we can start to remove the autopilot and live our lives in a way we choose. We believe it is no coincidence that mindfulness has risen at the same time as smartphone use – our devices constantly pull us out of the present moment.
It gives us a break from the phone
In a world where there is always a post to check, an update to read, an email to make sure you haven’t missed, having a really valid reason to have a break from our digital is invaluable. Getting into the habit of putting the phone on flight mode and in the drawer every day for 10 or 15 minutes to practise some mindfulness creates an offline space in our world that so many of us crave.
At the end of every session we run at Shine Offline we ask workshop participants what their biggest take away has been from some time thinking about their relationship with their digital technology. The value of mindfulness in today’s distracted world is one of the most popular responses. And we know, first hand, why. Everyone could benefit from just 10 minutes a day of focus on the breath.
If you fancy giving it a go we would recommend this short guided meditation by one of the UK’s leading Mindfulness teachers Mark Williams.
Why proper breaks during the working day have never been more important
The modern day tea break
Oh, its 10.30. Time for a break. Think I’ll go and stick the kettle on and have a coffee and see if there’s any of that birthday cake left in the kitchen. Be good to catch up with Megan too and see how she is after that run in with Simon in the ops meeting. Phone in hand, ready to go…
Sound familiar? We all need breaks in our days. At work they’re vital if we want to perform at our best and not become overwhelmed. We are all taking so much information in during our working day that stepping away from the desk to allow some time to recalibrate is really important. And although many people still do this something has fundamentally changed – the presence of the smartphone.
These days a lot of us habitually carry our phone around with us everywhere we go. It’s an extension of ourselves. And as a result during our break times we are still processing information – be that scrolling through news or social media, whatsapp chats or even our work inbox! The chance for a proper break away to allow the mind to wander, have some rest and some downtime, just isn’t the same.
The importance of stepping away
In today’s always-on, digitally distracted world many psychologists and psychiatrists are reiterating the importance of breaks. Shine Offline’s associate Consultant psychiatrist Dr Ian Drever from Esher Groves clinic says:
“Being on a screen and multitasking makes us feel good. It gives us the illusion of productivity, but it’s all a bit of an empty sugar rush. All that’s happening is that we’re rewarding the novelty-seeking part of our brain by jumping around from one task to the next.
The real results come from sustained, focused, big-picture effort. This kind of work is hugely aided by switching off and having time away from screens, devices and distractions.”
What we do on our break times
If we are habitually checking news and social media during our break times this could be having a fundamentally negative impact on our mood. There are various scientific studies that demonstrate that social media use can have a negative impact on how we feel. And although called “social media” the vast majority of time spent on sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram is extremely passive. Research has shown the amount of active, non-passive social media use that occurs on is staggeringly low. 0.09% on Facebook, 1.6% on Instagram, and 0.048% on Twitter.
And in turn passive use of social media has been found to have a negative impact on our mood.
Research has found that batching notifications so that they are received at schedules throughout the day can have a positive affect on mood but at Shine Offline we would advise people to be sure not to spend all of their break times on their devices.
By all means stay up to date with the news or what your friends are up to on social media but be sure to have some screen free breaks throughout the day. As Dr Ian says, we work at our best when we have these breaks throughout the day.
The value of getting back to nature
Stepping away from the computer, leaving the phone behind and going outside for a change of scene and a chance to clear your head is priceless during a morning, lunchtime or afternoon break. The value of “forest bathing”, the Japanese term for immersing yourself in green space, has gained a lot of interest in the past few years with research showing the benefits to wellbeing of spending time in nature. If your office isn’t in the middle of the woods however just stepping outside and spending some time in a green space can have similar benefits. And of course, leaving the potentially distracting influence of your phone at your workstation and catching up with a colleague can also be incredibly valuable when it comes to developing good relationships at work.
Reconnect with colleagues
Tech writer and consultant Linda Stone coined the term Continuous Partial Attention back in 1998 as the behaviour of continuously dividing one’s attention. And psychologists report that if we have our smartphone in our hand or pocket at all times many of us are suffering from this condition as a result. Chatting to a colleague on a break, phone in pocket, a little part of our brain is always on the device, wondering when it is going to go off or what is waiting in there for us. And as a result we simply can’t give ourselves over 100% to the person we are with, the thing we are doing. Or immerse ourselves fully in some alone time during a break.
As humans we need breaks. Time to refresh and reload. So after you finish reading how about sticking your phone in the drawer and heading to the kitchen for a cuppa and slice of cake? Your head will thank you for it!
Batch but still have a break