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Why being ‘always on’ can reduce productivity

With technology rapidly evolving, and becoming a significant part of our lives, it's not uncommon for people to spend a significant portion of  their day engaged with screens. For some, the first thing they do when they wake up is check their phone.

This reliance on technology has also affected the way businesses operate. Depending on the industry, employees have the ability to access documents/systems and respond to emails 24/7, no matter where they are in the world. Plus, with remote working becoming increasingly popular, it’s easier to avoid taking scheduled breaks and keep working.

Whilst on the surface, this ‘always on’ approach seems like improved productivity for businesses, and a break from traditional working’ for employees, it can actually have a negative impact on employee mental and physical health.

The impact of being 'always on' on mental health

Constantly being ‘on’ could lead to a condition called ‘digital stress’, or ‘telepressure’ which is a fixation of checking and quickly responding to messages.

An employee who suffers from ‘digital stress’ may find it difficult to switch between ‘work time’ and ‘me time’. A recent study revealed that those who experience high levels of workplace digital stress are also likely to experience poor recovery, higher level of burnout, and poor work-life balance. This inability to switch off, can lead to people being more prone to suffer from anxiety, stress and insomnia.

Other research on the subject also found that:

  • 31% of UK employees feel that they do not have a good work life balance. Almost 3 in 10 workers (28%) believe that they are less productive in work due to this.

  • 88% of UK employees have experienced burnout in the last 2 years

Two thirds of employees even said they would take a pay cut for a better work-life balance.

Our own research into Mental Health in the Workplace discovered employees are feeling work has become more stressful in the last two years. And 64% of them said work has been a cause for their poor mental health. We also found that 37% of employees have taken time off for their mental wellbeing over the last two years.

So it's important for businesses to acknowledge the importance of work-life balance and help manage ‘digital pressure’ by encouraging their employees to take regular breaks from technology, and from work.

The impact of being 'always on' on physical health

With the introduction of remote and hybrid working, the lines of work time and personal time can seem blurred for employees – including those who work in deskless industries.

Staring at a screen, whether a computer screen or a small phone screen, for a long period of time, can lead to ‘digital eye strain’. Symptoms of computer eye strain include watery or extremely dry eyes, headaches and double or blurred vision, as well as neck or back pain.

The immediate effects of digital eye strain are that employees are likely to have difficulty focusing, making it difficult to get tasks done in time, and correctly.

Using digital devices may be to blame for neck and back pain from constantly looking down at the screen, and the prolonged immobilisation and repetitive movements, which can lead to a number of other musculoskeletal disorders.

According to a report by the Health and Safety Executive, almost 20% of absences in 2021/2022 were caused by musculoskeletal disorders, with an estimated 15.2 days taken for each case. The cost of this absenteeism could have a serious impact to your business, with reduced productivity and increased costs to cover absences. 

Help to minimise the risk of technology to employee health and wellbeing

In light of the new ways of working, there are things you can implement to help manage employee mental and physical health and wellbeing and ensure that ‘always being on’ doesn’t actually lead to a reduction in productivity or poor wellbeing:

1. Set reasonable communication expectations

Due to time constraints, some managers prefer to email after hours. Making it clear to employees that there is no expectation to respond until the next day is important to relieve them of the pressures of after-hour emailing.

If you can’t switch off emails completely after hours, consider implementing a rota system where each employee takes turns to be ‘on call’ each day. Although it may not be ideal for all types of companies and team set-ups, it helps employees draw a clear boundary between work and personal life, without worrying about negative repercussions.

If a rota system won’t work for your company, agree a set time when after-hours emailing is possible. For example, you could agree that employees will check their email between 8 and 9pm during the week, or between 11am and 12pm and 3 and 4pm at the weekend.

Some companies also trialled a four-day work week for six months (with no change in salary) starting in June 2022, resulting in 71% of employees experiencing lower levels of burnout than before, and 39% feeling less stressed. Plus, it had no impact on productivity levels and even benefited businesses with a 1.4% average revenue increase.

2. Encourage employees to take breaks when they can

Encourage employees to take regular breaks away from their screens, at home and in the office. It could be as simple as ensuring they’re leaving their desks during their lunch breaks or getting up to speak to colleagues rather than emailing.

Alternatively, you could take this further by encouraging exercise during the working day. As well as providing a break from their screens, studies have also shown that those who exercise more often are likely to be more productive and higher achievers than those who rarely exercise. See our article ‘Help employees to fit exercise into their working lives’ for tips on how to do this.

3. Help employees to look after their backs

To avoid employees suffering from musculoskeletal problems such as neck and back pain, you could implement a range of things from reviewing workstations and supplying items such as lumbar support pillows or foot supports, to providing access to physiotherapy.

Help your employees stay active and avoid aches and pains by sharing these five desk exercises that can be done from their desks.

4. Provide access to support lines

If your employees are showing signs of ‘burnout’ or struggling with telepressure, you can help them by providing access to mental health support lines. They can be simple to implement and provide your workforce with a practical tool to help proactively manage their mental health.

As part of Benenden Healthcare for Business, your employees will have access to qualified therapists through our 24/7 mental health helpline and support.

To achieve a culture which recognises and supports employee health and wellbeing in today's ‘always on’ world, any efforts must be underpinned by managers and should be modelled from the top down. For example, if business owners are able to stop responding to emails at 7pm on a week day, employees will also start to feel more confident about switching off as well.

Our business healthcare

Benenden Healthcare for Business provides an affordable, high quality, private healthcare solution to support all your employees. With easy setup and no exclusions on pre-existing medical conditions, we want to help make healthcare a standard of employment for everyone, rather than just a perk for the few. See how we can help you develop a healthcare solution that works for your whole business.