Social interaction is essential for maintaining mental health – without it, our vulnerability to mental health problems such as anxiety and depression could be increased. Yet our means of communication has changed dramatically as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Many of us are spending more time than ever online as we seek to adapt to the new ‘normal’ while striving to maintain our professional and social lives. In doing so, however, we are also putting ourselves at risk of succumbing to ‘online burnout’.
A change in the working environment has forced many people to swap office life for remote working from home. While some may have previous experience of this, for others the change can dramatically affect their work/life balance.
Previous anxieties and stress caused by the daily commute, office politics and back-to-back meetings may now seem a distant memory. The danger, however, is that one set of worries is simply replaced by another, including issues such as social isolation, a lack of structure to the day, the inability to ‘switch-off’ and disconnect from work and the blurring of boundaries with remote meetings being held later and later into the evening.
Many are now working longer hours – and spending more hours online – as a result. Indeed, according to a 2017 United Nations report1, 41% of remote workers reported feeling high stress levels, compared to 25% of office workers.
The need to participate in endless work-related video calls and ‘virtual’ meetings with colleagues can leave many feeling ‘chained’ to their electronic devices. This digital dependency can extend into other areas of people’s lives as well. Communicating regularly with friends and family online has become a key emotional crutch, particularly for expats, many of whom are still unable to travel freely to their home countries.
In addition, parents are presented with the additional pressures of home-learning and the need to support their child’s online teaching, while youngsters are spending more time than ever texting and messaging on social media in their desperation to nurture their friendships. It is little wonder that many people, regardless of background, age or culture, can feel as if their day-to-day lives are now intrinsically linked to a device.
How to avoid 'online burnout'
While seeking solace and support from our online network is now a necessity that most people cannot do without, there are some key pitfalls that we all need to be aware of and strategies we can put in place to help prevent mental ill health consequences, such as depression and anxiety, caused by an over-dependency on online interaction. These include:
- Get enough rest. A brief nap for just 20 minutes can improve cognitive functioning and processing of information. Rest encourages greater tolerance for the tasks that may lead to burnout.
- Factor in regular screen breaks. Whether it’s just to walk around the house or garden and stretch your legs or to make a drink – anything that encourages you to step away from the screen for short periods of time to give your mind and eyes a break is beneficial.
- Say “no”. Encourage learning to say “no” to a task without feeling guilty. Concerns about the economy and employment may encourage many to increase their workload disproportionally, as they try to maintain their visibility while working from home and prove how they’re indispensable. But, long-term this is not sustainable and will just result in unmanageable work levels and increased anxiety and stress.
- Set boundaries. Create "media-free" zones in the house like bedrooms. Keep this room device-free and regard it as a sanctuary, a place to unwind, switch-off and de-stress at the end of the day.
- Set and stick to regular, device-free mealtimes. Use this time to sit-down, re-group and engage with the family. Talk about each other’s day, plans for the future – anything but work! Remove the temptation completely by leaving all electronic devices in another part of the house while you all enjoy a meal together.
- Step away from the digital world. Make a conscious effort to participate in family-focused activities - play sport, organise family movie nights or board games’ nights – anything that gets you into the fresh air or away from devices and interacting with like-minded individuals.
- Introduce time limits on screen time. Agree a time to start and finish the working day and try to stick to this as much as possible. Ensure ‘device-free’ time at least 60 minutes prior to bedtime.