Better Being Series: Are You Taking Care of Your Digital Wellbeing?

Better Being Series: Are You Taking Care of Your Digital Wellbeing?
June 21, 2024 18 mins

Better Being Series: Are You Taking Care of Your Digital Wellbeing?

On Aon Podcast Hero Image

Rachel Fellowes is joined by Amy Blankson, Co-founder & Chief Evangelist at Digital Wellness Institute, for a conversation about digital wellbeing in the modern workplace and how to maintain a healthy tech-life balance.

Key Takeaways
  1. Discusses the challenges of hyper-responsible tech use in high performing adults.
  2. The episode shares insights on the impact of hybrid working on digital wellbeing after COVID-19.
  3. They define digital wellbeing and why Amy decided to set up the Digital Wellness Institute.

Hi everyone, and welcome to the award-winning “On Aon” podcast, where we dive into some of the most pressing topics that businesses and organizations around the world are facing. This week in a special series on resilience called Better Being, we hear from Rachel Fellowes, Aon’s Chief Wellbeing Officer with her guest, Amy Blankson, on digital wellbeing in the modern workplace.

Rachel Fellows:
Hello, and welcome to Better Being with me, Rachel Fellowes. I'm the Chief Wellbeing Officer here at Aon, and unsurprisingly, I'm passionate about wellbeing and human sustainability in the workplace. Now globally, an estimated 12 billion working days are lost every year due to depression and anxiety, and this costs us around $1 trillion U.S. dollars annually in lost productivity. Curiously, only 30 percent of us identify as resilient, and burnout is also on the rise. As a result, wellbeing has quickly moved the top of companies priorities lists with 83 percent of companies now saying they have a wellbeing strategy in place. How organizations prioritize and integrate wellbeing can have a profound impact on employee engagement, talent recruitment, and retention, as well as overall business results. So, it's more important than ever to get this right. A wellbeing strategy needs to include physical, emotional, social, financial and career elements. And so, in this series, I take a look at what makes for better being at work with thought leaders and subject matter experts.

So in today's episode, we're talking about something I believe to be a topic of increasing importance, that is, digital wellbeing. And in a world where not only are we more and more online than ever before, we're also spending longer periods online because our professional and personal lives are moving into the digital space. So, think of the growth of hybrid working as well as the use of social media and how we learn to manage ourselves and how that plays out into our wellbeing.

So, with me today to discuss this is the amazing Amy Blankson. Amy is the Co-Founder and Chief Evangelist, I love that title for a start, of the Digital Wellness Institute. She's also a happiness expert, speaker and bestselling author of the Future of Happiness. But it gets better. The final part of the introduction reflects the fact that Amy was selected to be a member of the UN Global Happiness Council and is the only person to have ever received a Point of Light award from two U.S. Presidents. Absolutely incredible, Amy. Thank you so much for being here. It was a privilege to have you with us.

Amy Blankson:
Oh, thank you so much for having me, Rachel.

Rachel Fellows:
So, I know in our chat we're going to explore a number of things starting with the most obvious, talking about what is digital wellness or digital wellbeing, and then progressing into why this matters for our lives and in the workplace, and also start to integrate something which I find fascinating called, digital flourishing. So, for those of us who are making assumptions around what digital wellbeing is, can we start with that initial question, the obvious one, what is it? And then lead into why you set up the Digital Wellness Institute?

Amy Blankson:
Digital wellbeing is the opportunity that we have to maximize the benefits of technology while mitigating the harms that come along with it. In short, it's all about finding balance in our lives. And for us, we started the Digital Wellness Institute in 2018 with the mindset that organizations in particular needed help navigating the digital era, all of the changes that have happened and emerged so rapidly in our organizations, that intuitively we felt, whether it's Zoom fatigue or it's the ergonomics of our workstations, or it's just the ever-present experience of being around screens, we felt that those individuals needed a gauge, a metric to be able to understand how digitally well they were and when they needed to invest in their own health and wellbeing in order to come back to a place of stasis or even better, a place of digital flourishing.

Rachel Fellows:
My mind is going off in so many different directions, Amy, I'm thinking, "Gosh, I'm a mother. I've got a 4-year-old, but she's not at the social media stage, and I'm super scared as to how I think of managing that."

I also heard the fact you've got 2018 pre-pandemic. You must have seen absolutely fascinating progression of the topic through 2020 and beyond. You also mentioned the reality that this is work relevant, and I'd really like to dig into that more if that's okay. So, in particular, thinking about how the conversation has developed in that space, is there anything you've seen in the data and the observations in particular in the last few years around impact of hybrid working by way of example?

Amy Blankson:
I hear from employees all of the time that are expressing some of the frustrations of digital overwhelm or what's being called techno stress. We hear 83 percent of employees are turning to their employers looking for help navigating tech-life balance. And the employers are turning to us saying, "I have no idea what to do because I feel the same stresses and pressures." And it's very hard to step off of the treadmill when the entire world is on it together. And so, what we work with organizations on is how to both help measure and define digital culture within an organization, but really also to then change practices, policies, and even some of the language that we use in organizations to help provide additional clarity, really to support the employees as well.

And you bring up an important point, Rachel, that is typically when we think about digital wellness, we think of our children or our teenagers. We think of young people who are being really irresponsible on technology and maybe spending far too long surfing TikTok or YouTube. But the reason why we chose to focus on adults is because there's actually a separate and very important part of this conversation in that young people are often associated with irresponsible tech use. The adults that I work with are often high performers and I associate them with hyper-responsible tech use, meaning that they don't want to miss an email, they're trying to get to inbox zero, they want to be the first person to respond, even if that means staying up till midnight to check their email one more time. And that dynamic is one that is very quietly undergirding a lot of that dynamics, particularly around hybrid work, flexible work. We love the benefits of flexible work, but there is a real cost to it that I think it's time that employers, and in particular leaders, begin to call out and talk about.

Rachel Fellows:
I love that. You've even made me call myself out, I think, because I'm so obsessed with making sure my daughter has a maximum of 20 minutes a day on technology, and I'm sitting here for 14 hours on technology. I love the irony. That's brilliant.

My mind also went to, and maybe we can just dig into it a little bit more, this concept of distraction. Because the habits we cultivate transcend work or life, or if you even want to put those two things in separate buckets. But my husband and I often play a game. So, we go out for dinner or we're sitting in an airport and we say, "Could we be the only couple not on our phone?" And that's an adult to adult peer review. And it's actually surprising how often we are, and I'm not saying we're always good at it. But I'd love to dig into this addiction, the hyper-response mode. It isn't just at work and what impact that has on personal relationships. Could we go there?

Amy Blankson:
Absolutely. What's interesting about this dynamic is that there is a human psychology factor playing into our behaviors. And that is that when you pick up your phone, 50 percent of the time you pick it up, nobody has actually called you or messaged you. You're checking to see if somebody did, because it turns out that one of the most addictive qualities of our smartphones is the need to be needed. And so, we're reaching for our device, and the weaker our impulse control gets, the worse the problem gets.

And so, I often liken it to a snowball rolling down the hill. The first time you reach for your phone, you might be checking a real message, but it turns out that you are 50 percent more likely to pick up your phone a second time within the next two minutes after the first pickup. So, what we're seeing here is that 50 percent of the time you're picking it up with no ringing. 50 percent of the time, you pick it up again and again and again until you're picking it up constantly.

So, what happens is that when we leave work, we find that our brains have been conditioned to continue reaching for these devices. Even when you know that you're off of work and you don't want to be checking, you find your hand gently reaching over for your device, just that one moment or that curiosity of something that you were going to just check out something new that you were thinking about, and then a work message pops up and guess what? You're back in work mode.

And so, this is what I think that as technology continues to advance, it becomes even more important that we as adults develop a sense of digital balance. And it's one of the topics that we've been working really hard on at the Digital Wellness Institute right now is thinking about on an organizational level and from a leader level, "How can you maximize digital balance for your employees?"

And we define that as screen balance, as a sense of digital belonging and as a sense of having digital boundaries. And those three factors turn out to be highly predictive of whether or not your employees stay at the organization, whether they're engaged and happy at work, whether they're the most productive selves, whether they're sleeping well at night. And so, this idea of digital balance is one that I really hope begins to become embraced in society as a concept for how we can manage coming alongside the development of technology, which is so rapid, with brains that are still catching up to the need to integrate in a meaningful way.

Rachel Fellows:
Absolutely amazing. And just again, if we could lean into a little bit of the wonderful education here. So, if we are always on, you would naturally say there's a correlation with burnout, but what's actually going on there? How do we become burnt out by always looking at our phone?

Amy Blankson:
There's quite a few factors actually that go into that. If we're specifically talking about our phones, one of the factors is the light that comes from our devices. It wears out our eyes, it leads to headaches, which then of course makes us feel more fatigued. If we're looking at Zoom, we're on screens, we're looking at all of the different beautiful faces that are in our Zoom rooms with us, it turns out our brain is actually going into hyper speed because you are trying to manage what's called the Brady Bunch Effect, which is looking at all the different squares on the screen, trying to manage different emotions, faces, trying to manage your background, trying to check the chat, trying to stay present with what's going on, but possibly slipping into a little bit of multitasking. So, the overload on our brains is quite overwhelming.

And then, you add to that the pressure of having to respond to an average of 237 notifications and messages throughout the day, and you're fighting upstream to actually find time in your day to get real work done. Beyond all the meetings and beyond all the messages, when do you do your work? And I think that for hyper-responsible individuals, that feels very frustrating. And so, by the end of the day, it's not just that you've been sitting at a desk all day, it's that your brain is really trying to manage so many things at once, and that can be exhausting.

Rachel Fellows:
And you can almost taste that constant slight dissatisfaction of I've never quite been able to finish anything, which I think comes with that, too. That was so helpful, Amy. I could literally listen to you all day, but one of the things I've loved getting to know you most, and in particular learning about the Digital Wellness Institute, is how balanced the research is. So, I know some of what we've talked about is almost the negative, but you also talk about the positive and this concept of digital flourishing. So how can we actually help people be masters at this?

Amy Blankson:
Oh, I love that question, Rachel, and I'm passionate about it, because what often happens right now is that there is a lot of sensationalist news or there's a lot of negative news around the impact of technology in our lives. And what I've seen, is that leads to guilt. We have to be on our devices, but we know it's not great for us. And so, we start to feel guilty. And we know there are all these associated harms, and then we feel like we are disempowered to do anything about it.

So, one of the things we did at the Digital Wellness Institute is we actually started, created this model called the Digital Flourishing Model, and we mapped out initially all of the problems that can come from our technology use in the workplace, and it was a really depressing list. And then, we took that model and we layered on top of it everything that I've learned from the field of positive psychology about human flourishing. And one of the things that I heard loud and clear from leaders that I spoke to was, "We don't know how to improve this problem because we don't have a vision of where we're going."

And so, we use the digital flourishing model to begin to cast that vision looking at eight different domains of wellness that could be improved or optimized in our lives. Everything from productivity, our environments, our communication, our relationships, mental health, physical health, tech enabled health and digital citizenship. And across those eight different domains, we began to cast a vision of what would it mean to be your most productive self, to feel like you were in charge of your technology and not the other way around? What if your communications were streamlined and that you felt really connected to the people on the other end of the line? What if your mental health was thriving and that you really felt every day you went into the office that you opened your inbox and you felt calm instead of panic? Imagine, and I think it's in that imagining that it enables us to realize that we actually have a lot of capacity as adults and as leaders to lean into some very small micro changes that we can make in our lives that will help us to move to a state of flourishing.

And this is so important because without having that moderation and that vision, what happens is that you find yourself in a place of digital addiction spending too long on screens, devices, gaming, whatever it might be. And so, your tendency as a human is to swing to the other end, which is digital detox. And we hear this all the time from individuals who are swearing off social media and stepping away from devices for long periods of time. And I think that is actually a fantastic strategy for short bursts. But given that we live in a world where technology's ubiquitous and we need it for work, we have to have another strategy.

And so, for us, that strategy is digital flourishing. It's finding that sweet spot where again, you're in control of your technology, not the other way around, and you're mindful of when, where, why, how, and how often you're spending on screens. That takes a lot of mindfulness. But in the act of slowing down to even ask those questions, I think each and every one of us can find that we might be flourishing in some aspects of our life on a day to day basis. I might have a really productive day today, but maybe my relationship suffered because I was all in on my work. And so, the idea is that we never arrive. We're never fully flourished, we're always flourishing. We're always striving to get to that place of trying to find greater balance between all the domains in our life, all the pressures that we face, and wanting to feel our best in the midst of that.

Rachel Fellows:
I love that. And in particular, the connection with it's an addictive pattern regardless if it's technology, if it's food, if it's relationships. That's so interesting how humans respond in the same way.

I also think having tried many different modes of many different things, but in particular on the digital front, when you do find that balanced path, you almost have the head space to understand the feedback loops for yourself. When you go to one tilt or the other, it's almost blended, and you can't quite see the wood for the trees. So, I really resonate with everything you're saying, Amy.

But crazily, it's nearly time already. Amy, it's been an absolute pleasure to get to know you and to have a special moment like this to talk about what quite frankly is possibly the most important topic all of our generations. You must feel incredibly proud to be working in such a great space. So, thank you very much for your time.

Amy Blankson:
Thank you so much, Rachel. This has been great.

Thanks for tuning in to the latest episode of “On Aon” with our episode host, Rachel Fellowes, and today’s guest, Amy Blankson. If you enjoyed this episode, you can get more insights on wellbeing in the workplace and information on future podcasts by following Rachel Fellowes on LinkedIn. In the meantime, be sure to check out our show notes and visit our website at Aon dot com to learn more about Aon.

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