Finding freedom from being digitally on-demand

Megan Whiting, freelance writer, proofreader and editor

Megan Whiting, freelance writer, proofreader and editor - Credit: Archant

Like a growing number of professionals, Megan Whiting knows what ‘nomophobia’ - the irrational fear of being without your phone - feels like.

Sadie Hopson, business consultant and trainer Picture: Gary Jude, Jude Photography

Sadie Hopson, business consultant and trainer Picture: Gary Jude, Jude Photography - Credit: Archant

When the 28 year-old freelance writer, proofreader and editor who is based in Saxmundham started running her business full time this September, she ramped up her availability.

“I found that I was replying to emails outside of designated hours,” she explained. “While my partner was spread out on the sofa relaxing in the evenings, I’d be scrolling through Facebook groups for work. I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to be ‘on it’ all the time.”

This week is International Stress Awareness Week, and Sadie Hopson, a workplace mental health expert from Chelmsford who is writing a book about the impact of our digital reliance, claims that digital burnout is the biggest stress-causer.

She finds it “very alarming” that the average work email stays unread for just six seconds.

Electronic devices

Electronic devices - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

“I see this problem getting worse and worse,” she says. “I’m getting a massive increase in requests from companies to train people up on this issue.

“Companies used to talk about staff having a sense of work life balance - now, people are talking about ‘workplace integration’ and how they integrate work and their personal life.

Most Read

“The technology has advanced and has given us greater flexibility in our lives, but we need boundaries in place to protect our leisure time.”

John Millar of The Green Chair. Picture; Park Simms

John Millar of The Green Chair. Picture; Park Simms - Credit: Archant

Never tuning out

Ms Hopson says downtime should be recovery time, but an “alarming number” of people are never switching off.

“In my workshops, I ask employees to give their phones to me for the rest of the sessions,” Ms Hopkin explained. “They immediately start looking stressed from not being able to check their phone.”

These days, 49 year-old John Millar runs the corporate training company The Green Chair in Helmingham.

Woman in surroundings of digital technology

Woman in surroundings of digital technology - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

“Eight years ago he experienced burnout while telecommuting for an American software company which left him suffering from migraines for most of the working week. “A chunk of what I experienced was about the issues that arise around digital communication,” he explained. “The feeling was of being in a downward spiral, and it finished my IT career. The problem related to a feeling of isolation by not having any face to face communication with work colleagues.”

Mr Millar says he got his stress levels down by practising the Chinese meditative exercise Qigong for one to two hours a day, and by addressing his stress in the moment.

“I developed a way to use physical and mental tools to defuse the response,” he explained. “It was a change in my approach to Qigong that has provided me with the stability and health to build a new career after burnout.”

Policies to protect

Some international companies, including Lidl, Volkswagen, Porsche and Daimler, are waking up to the issue of nomophobia by putting policies in place to safeguard against it.

France has a law, the Right to Disconnect, which penalises businesses who try to contact staff out of hours. But Ms Hopson finds it “concerning” that the UK is not doing enough to protect its citizens’ leisure time.

While all organisation are culpable - Ms Hopson works with digitally burnt out staff at councils and universities as well as corporate companies - she says the worst offenders are companies that work across time zones. “Their staff have the highest level of guilt,” she says. “Also entrepreneurs of small companies, when there is no one else who can answer a query.”

Setting boundaries

Ms Hopson claims that 71% of people sleep holding their phone or with their phone right next to them, diminishing their ability to have a restful night’s sleep, and advises creating “digital free havens” in bedrooms and eating areas.

“Buy an old-fashioned alarm clock,” she suggests. “A gadget-free bedroom is good for the mind, and especially if you have children, it teaches them good habits too.”

While many worry about not being contactable in an emergency, Ms Hopson suggests getting a non-smart phone for that purpose.

“Being switched off gives people a sense of freedom and liberty - it’s ironic that in America, people call them ‘cell’ phones.”

Ms Whiting has now set boundaries to prevent herself reaching the point of digital burnout.

“Now, when my partner comes back home, I think ‘this is our time’”, she says. “I put my phone on charge in a different room so there are no distractions.

“Because I don’t want to lose clients, if I get an email outside of working hours, I write back just to say I’ll answer you in the morning.

“When I go on holiday, I have my out of office reply on, which gives me peace of mind. Boundaries help me mentally, because I want to be able to enjoy my job and not feel really stressed.

“Being stricter with myself makes it easier to cope.”