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4 Signs that Your Staff are Experiencing Digital Depression, and How to Intervene.

Updated: Aug 3, 2020

Richard Sherman looks at four tell-tale signs of digital depression, investigates some solutions, and warns about the potential post-pandemic damage to mental and organisational health.

Within a few weeks of the spread of COVID-19, managers started noticing declining output from their staff. At first, this was put down to the limitations of remote working, but in time they started to realise that their staff were becoming Zoom Zombies. Workers were increasingly unhappy, unproductive and even uncooperative. The procrastination epidemic had begun.

Four tell-tale signs that workers are sliding into digital depression:

1. They seem busy all the time even with a low workload

When simple tasks take inordinate amounts of time, it may be a warning sign that a person has impaired working memory. At the best of times, we forget what we came into a room for, under the current circumstances, our concentration spans have suffered alarmingly. Kitty Klein, a psychology professor at North Carolina State University, says, “Stressful events compete for attentional resources.” The stress we are all carrying during this pandemic is enormous on so many levels – worry about health, family, the economy, all combined – with no escape in sight. It’s no surprise that battling to concentrate isn’t unusual. Even during lockdowns with little demand on time, our mental RAM is maxed out so our ability to process information is impaired.

2. The boundaries between work and life have become blurred.

Until recently, working flexitime and working from home were the privilege of the more senior members of most organisations. Once it was forced onto everyone with an office job, it lost a lot of its allure. Workers aren’t enjoying it and it isn’t serving companies well. Productivity is low, with many workers working at night but battling to do it during office hours. Working on weekends erodes both the effectiveness of work time and the enjoyment of leisure time – in much the same way that multifunction products often dilute both intended functions.

Take the Spork for example. A combination between a spoon and a fork, it could serve as both, theoretically eliminating the need for having two separate pieces of cutlery. In reality, it’s ineffective as a spoon because the slotted holes between the prongs allow fluids through, and as a fork it can’t grip as securely because the sides of the spoon impair the depth to which it can penetrate. It’s pretty much useless at either function, and adds another item of kitchen clutter, instead of eliminating it, as it was intended to do. Flexitime workers are the Sporks of the new office world – burned out from working all the time, ineffective from not focusing well and not benefitting from leisure.

Working at home demands a much higher level of multitasking than an office environment does. When schools are closed too, parents are working, teaching children, and trying to run their daily lives at the same time.

3. Motivation for even simple tasks is evaporating and outputs lack creativity.

In the first few weeks of the work-from-home era, there was an understanding that the situation would be temporary, and with it that there would be some short-term pay-cuts. Many workers took this well, believing they were weathering a short storm with the company. More than a hundred days on, with no relief in sight for some sectors, pay cuts linger, some staff have been furloughed, and some laid off – and some businesses closed altogether. There are not many workers who believe their employers could do anything but cut their pay, but it still takes an emotional toll on human resources. The effect on morale is devastating – even where CEOs are leading by example, taking the biggest cuts or working with no pay at all, the lowest earners feel the pinch most keenly.

With such a problematic motivational situation, many workers can’t find the motivation to do a simple thing like send an email and procrastinate for hours. Creativity and drive have evaporated form their work. Online communication tools have become procrastination opportunities, and the self-esteem damage from not completing tasks generates a vicious circle of dwindling productivity.

At the bottom of the spiral, workers battle to find the motivation even to do the things they really want to do. Clinically, this is the definition of depression – and it’s never before been seen on such a large scale. It has taken the shock of a string of suicides for the community to wake up to the problem.

Stress fatigue was first noticed in World War 2 when soldiers deployed in extreme conditions for a few months were still at it over 5 years later. Cortisol levels spike during stressful situations, and prolonged exposure takes its toll on the mind and body. The level of stress doesn’t need to increase for it to become intolerable; the same level of stress with an increased duration can have a worse effect. Heart-attacks often occur after a sustained period of stress, when one’s system has been run down. Many war veterans became dysfunctional when they should have been celebrating their victories. Max Manus, the celebrated Norwegian saboteur, battled alcoholism and depression after the war, despite being a national hero.

This cannot be ignored – stress fatigue and PTSD can have lasting effects if not treated – and the effects on a company’s culture can be as devastating as on an individual.

4. Their interactions with peers aren’t what they used to be.

Company culture is already suffering - underlying stress is making workers irritable and impatient. But another reason is a lot more practical: the limitations of electronic communication.

When online meetings first became a thing, newspapers reported that companies would no longer need boardrooms – but the reality has been vastly different. Even as the technology has become more and more accessible, its shortcomings have become apparent – they are not shortcomings of tech, but human ones.

Even in a video call, micro-expressions, gestures, tone and body language are not as effectively conveyed as in face-to-face interaction. In writing, it’s even harder to convey feelings. Tone is a very subtle art in writing, and in electronic communication the number of emails a worker sends in a typical day means that they can’t really pay close attention to tone. Fifty years ago, an office worker would write a few letters each week, spending a few hours composing each. Now, sending hundreds of emails, and those to co-workers receiving the least care, it’s not surprising that it’s possible to be offended by something unintended in an email. To compound this, the social aspects of office life have disappeared, meaning that 100% of the interaction between colleagues is work related. “All work and no play” has made social skills dull!

Intervention: Some practical tips for overcoming digital depression:

1. Dress for work even at home (some people even take the step of leaving the house and coming back in to start work). It helps to separate work and home lives.

2. Keep a diary. Professor Klein’s statement above about dealing with stressful events was made in the context of her recommendation to keep a diary for the cognitive rewards it offers: it improves focus and concentration.

3. Talk about it – quantifying a problem is the first step to managing it. It may seem very negative to commiserate at first, but it can help with the feeling of being overwhelmed. Have one-on-one calls with your staff, not about their work performance, but about their wellbeing (which underpins their work performance).

4. Get a business coach to help you empower you and your managers to guide, inspire and resource decentralised teams. Involving external professionals will also show your staff that you care about their wellbeing and are serious about looking after your people.

5. Stop multitasking as far as possible. Keeping a notepad at hand to jot down all the to-dos one remembers will prevent those nagging thoughts from interfering in workflows. Setting a daily timetable can also be very helpful, since we are wired to follow a timetable of our tasks from using timetables in our school days.

Richard Sherman is a is a professional member (MCIM) of the Chartered Insititute of Marketing (CIM UK), and responsible for digital wellbeing at Focused People Consulting.

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