Considering all of the challenges we faced in 2020, we have proven ourselves to be exceptional at adapting to new circumstances. In the interest of public health and safety, we’ve had to make drastic changes to how we work, socialize, and go about our daily activities — most of which now take place entirely in digital spaces. Technology has been vital to enabling this ongoing remote reality, for which we have all been immensely grateful. After all, for many of us, going digital allows us to continue working, seeing family and friends, and participating in social events.
But being all digital all the time can have serious consequences. Ever wonder why after a long day of video conferencing, you can barely keep your eyes open? It may seem strange, given that you technically sat around all day, but it’s not strange at all. In fact, it’s a condition known as digital fatigue, and many of us are feeling it.
What is Digital Fatigue?
Digital fatigue is the state of mental exhaustion brought on by the excessive and concurrent use of multiple digital tools, such as apps and screens. This exhaustion can lead to a lack of energy, mind fragmentation, burnout, and can even be damaging to the body.
While digital fatigue is not exactly a new phenomenon, in these unprecedented times, more and more of us are struggling to manage it. With so many of us living under stay-at-home orders, and working out of home offices, there has been a significant blurring of lines between work life and home life, which means we just aren’t shutting off the way we used to. The long day at the office is no longer broken up by water cooler breaks or random chats with coworkers. These moments were not mere distractions from work; they were opportunities to stretch our legs, to have a screen break, and to grab rejuvenating moments of human interaction. Nowadays, many of us spend all day online, then go straight from our laptops to Netflix, with a phone in our hand all the while, and our minds and bodies are feeling the impact.
Common Symptoms of Digital Fatigue:
- Feeling worn out by endless virtual meetings and events
- Sore, tired, burning, or itching eyes
- Headaches or migraines
- Sore muscles; especially in the neck, shoulders, and back
- Increased sensitivity to light
- Difficulty concentrating and mind fragmentation
- Feeling hopeless and overwhelmed by the repetitive nature of the day
- Feeling lethargic
- Displaying snappy or irrational behaviour
Why Does it Happen? | The Science Behind Digital Fatigue
Digital fatigue is a consequence of a few simple facts:
- Virtual interactions can be extremely hard on the brain
- Digital devices emit significant amounts of blue light, which can be hard on the eyes
- Engaging in digital activities often leads to plenty of time sitting, which can be hard on the body
Let’s dig in a little deeper.
Virtual Interactions and the Brain
Humans have, by and large, evolved as social creatures. As such, most of our brains instinctively search for and read non-verbal cues during social interactions — body language, facial expressions, and so forth. In a virtual interaction, though, many of these nuances are stripped away. Tight framing, gallery view, and poor audio/video quality all contribute to a degradation of these nuances. Consequently, our brains become hyper-focused and overstimulated, searching for a central point of vision, as well as non-verbal cues that aren’t accessible. In short, our brains work extra hard during a virtual interaction. While these challenges may not be the same for everyone (notably, some neuro-atypical people find virtual interactions easier than face-to-face interactions), an increasingly high number of people are struggling with this.
Blue Light and the Eyes
Natural blue light (or HEV) is one of many shades of light contained in sunlight. While there are benefits to blue light, there are also many dangers when we are overexposed. With the rise of popularity in digital devices, which emit significant levels of human-made blue light, overexposure is unfortunately becoming commonplace. Computer screens, smartphones, and televisions are all major culprits. Because blue light has such short-wavelengths and high energy, it scatters more easily than other light and is therefore less easily focused. This unfocused visual “noise” reduces contrast, thus contributing to digital eye strain, which can cause eye fatigue and discomfort, dry eyes, headaches and migraines, blurred vision, neck and shoulder pain, eye twitching, and red eyes. Another related eye-issue is the rise in myopia (nearsightedness), which has been linked to spending too much time indoors, focusing on close up objects, such as screens and mobile devices. Moreover, laboratory studies have shown that too much exposure to blue light can even damage light-sensitive cells in the retina.
Sitting and the Body
The human body is not designed to sit all day, and yet, in this remote reality, that is exactly what many of us ask of it — especially those of us that are now working from home. Hours at a desk during the day, combined with hours on the couch in the evening, now that there are less places to go and fewer things to do, can take a serious toll. When we sit for large chunks of time, our hip flexors and hamstrings tighten and our joints stiffen. This can contribute to lower back pain, knee stiffness, and affect gait and balance. Thus, even activities that may have once been simple for us, like walking, can become painful. Once we start experiencing this pain, it can be even more difficult to get up, stretch, and exercise, leading to more pain. And it’s not just our bodies at stake; when we spend all day sitting, we miss out on the endorphins and other benefits that come from exercise, the lack of which can account for higher levels of anxiety and depression. In fact, the body needs a healthy balance of several hormones, notably: endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, all of which are vital to good brain-health. When we spend too much time sitting, rather than engaging in activities that boost these hormones, our brains are more susceptible to mental health issues.
What Can We Do?
We’ve heard it all before: sit up straight; go outside and get some exercise; no phones at the dinner table — these are more than cliche lines we’d hear from our parents, or say to our children, for that matter. Rather, these are real, practical, and meaningful pieces of advice. Especially these days. As the first phase of vaccinations roll out, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. But the hard truth is, we are still currently in the tunnel. To make it through, it is critical that we learn to balance the benefits and struggles of living in a remote reality. We need to know how to leverage technology, as well as when to simply turn it off.
While that may sound simple enough, we all know that it’s not. In this new normal, many of our work commitments, social commitments, and even flat out boredom, all contribute to more time spent in front of computers and digital devices. But remember, we’re all going through this together. Honesty, compassion, and understanding will go a long way. Be honest with yourself, your coworkers, and loved ones about when you need a break. Be compassionate when others extend that same honesty to you, and offer understanding in return. We can all support each other by being proponents of self-care, and by building a toolbox of habits and activities designed to manage digital fatigue.
Tips & Tricks to Get Through the Digital Day-to-Day
Try to incorporate these tips and tricks into your everyday work routine:
- Complete daily tasks one at a time: Digital fatigue can leave us unfocused and fragmented — make a to-do list and tackle items one-by-one to avoid feeling overwhelmed
- Decrease Blue Light: Most digital devices offer settings to adjust or turn on blue light filters, which can make screen time less straining to the eyes
- Be aware of posture and monitor positioning: Try to avoid hunching, and place your monitor 20-40 inches away from you, with the top of the screen at your eye-level
- Support coworkers and encourage your team to take screen breaks: Individuals may forget to take breaks, or feel guilty stepping away during busy work days, so making this an expectation, or even a team activity can help normalize taking those much needed moments off
- Get outside: Fresh air is rejuvenating — if you can, walking is great exercise, and it gives your eyes and brain a chance to recharge (you can even take a work call while you circle the block)
- Eat a Healthy Lunch/Snack: You can help keep your energy up by fueling your body with well-balanced foods
- Turn off the camera: Not every interaction has to be a video call — when possible, take your meeting standing up, pacing, or even while out on a walk
- Hand-Write notes: Going old-school has its benefits, as a good old fashioned pen and paper will build micro screen breaks into our daily routine
- Call a coworker: Checking in with each other is so important these days — call just to say hi, or as opposed to a video conference, and make time for small talk at the beginning or end of the meeting (ie have a water cooler moment)
- Set your work hours and be mindful of day’s end: When the lines between home and work are blurred, it’s all too easy to extend your day or to catch yourself checking or sending emails well into the evening — instead, know when to turn off your computer and walk away
- Engage in screen-free after work activities: Go for a walk, work out, read/listen to a book, do a puzzle, cook a meal — any time you spend on your feet and/or away from a screen will be time well spent!
Did You Know?
There are many ways to naturally boost your Happy Hormones: endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. When we have a healthy dose of these hormones in our bodies, we can better manage mental health issues. Better yet, these activities are sure to break you out of habits that trigger digital fatigue.
- Take screen breaks
- Eat well
- Get fresh air
- Relax, stretch, and exercise
- Support each other
It’s All About Balance
The ability to move to a remote reality is something to be grateful for, as it has so many benefits. After all, it’s how we’ve been able to stay connected, and support each other through these challenging times. But too much of anything can be bad for us, and digital tools are no exception. We need to learn how to prioritize our mental and physical health in this new normal and with our myriad of digital commitments. Just as importantly, we need to take care of each other. There are many ways to stay connected offline. Call a loved one on the phone, help a neighbour in need with their shopping or yard work, challenge each other to cook a new meal or try a new workout routine at the same time and chat about how it went afterwards.
If you are struggling with digital fatigue, know that you are not in it alone. Reach out to a manager or coworker, friend, or family member and let them know how you’re feeling and what you need. By that same token, check in with others and let people know that you are there for them and will support them in addressing their own needs.
Remember, we’re all in this together.
Looking for Support?
Building on over ten years of increasing awareness and acceptance around mental health, the Bell Let’s Talk Initiative has been extended to offer additional support during this difficult time, including COVID-19 Resources.
For more information on how our Data, AI, Cloud, and AppDev services can help your organization navigate this remote reality, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or schedule a chat with one of our experts.
- ‘Zoom fatigue’ is taxing the brain. Here’s why that happens (National Geographic)
- The Dangers of Sitting (Harvard Health)
- Too Much Tech Could Be Causing Nearsightedness…But Not in the Way You Might Think (Smithsonian Magazine)
- 10 Things that Happen When You Sit Down All Day (Healthline)
- How to Hack Your Hormones for a Better Mood (Healthline)
- The Dangers of Digital Fatigue, and How to Prioritize Your Mental Health (Entrepeneur)
- Blue light: It’s both bad and good for you (All About Vision)