Another Symptom of COVID-19: Digital Fatigue
The dangers of going 100% digital and how to minimize your risk.
By Megan Coville, MS, OTR/L
Digital communication is necessary to keep businesses afloat, especially as COVID-19 continues to keep employees home and out of the office. Unfortunately, a new side effect of this reliance on technology has presented itself.
This extra symptom of COVID-19? Digital fatigue.
Digital fatigue is not a new discovery, but it is becoming more widely talked about because of the rising number of employees working from home. It is accompanied by a feeling of mental and physical exhaustion, and is triggered by long hours spent in front of the screens. A number of stressors can increase this fatigue, including:
Constant external self-awareness:
External self-awareness, or seeing yourself through others, is a leadership skill that helps promote self-growth. However, constant external self-awareness can increase anxiety and lead to mental exhaustion. The fatigue a person feels after a day of virtual meetings is not only the result of focusing on the discussions or the work at hand, but also the stress of spending the entire meeting staring at live video of yourself. Even when your video box is hidden, the new format makes you hyper-aware that others can see you and potentially closely watching your every move.
In a conference room, we focus on the speaker. In a video meeting, it can feel like everyone is staring at you – even when you are not the one speaking.
Virtual meetings make us more self-aware of our actions, facial expressions and mannerisms. For example, someone who naturally plays with their hair may have never noticed how often they actually do it until they are on a video meeting. Once they watch themselves tug at that strand one too many times, they become immediately self-conscious. This disruption to their thought process forces them to jump between thoughts of work and self-awareness.
Constant virtual meetings:
Digital fatigue continues with the scheduling of meetings. We were booked with meetings when we were in our offices, but moving from place to place gave us the opportunity to take a break from the computer. We could get a cup of coffee and chat with a co-worker or stare out the window and dream about being home. Now, those dreams have turned into nightmares for some of us. The meetings are back-to-back and we do not move from our desks. We do not have that co-worker breaking our computer-staring marathon with a question, nor do we have the opportunity to walk across the building to the water fountain.
Digital work processes:
We spend so much time in front of screens because many of our projects are digital. Working digitally has made many aspects of our jobs much easier, but can also present unique challenges. Many of us are constantly juggling multiple applications at once. Not only does this apply to computer applications, it also applies to the distractions that come with working from home. Tending to work, family members, pets and household chores can be daunting. Our ability to focus can be greatly impacted by jumping between home and work needs. Our mental functions become overstimulated and exhausted when we have to quickly and repeatedly switch gears.
Computer screens, LED lighting, phones, tablets and televisions emit “blue light” which is picked up by the eyes and stimulates the brain. Extended exposure to this stimulus strains the eyes to absorb and sends the brain into overdrive, even though you can’t actually see it. Think of it as UV rays from the sun. You cannot see UV rays, but still feel the burn after the rays have been absorbed by your skin.
Screens are a part of every aspect of our lives. In the morning we check our phones. We work on our computers all day. At night, we play on our tablets or watch TV. By the end of the day we have set ourselves up for the perfect storm of being too tired but also too wired to relax. This impacts our circadian rhythms which may affect the ability to fall asleep, as well as the quality of sleep. Without proper rest, our brains struggle to reverse the effects of the fatigue, leading to other mental and physical issues, such as depression, headaches, upset stomach and declined motivation.
Managing digital fatigue:
- Avoid constant video meetings. Video meetings facilitate beneficial interaction, both socially and professionally. However, if you are feeling the strain of being on display, opt for a few phone call meetings or space out the video calls.
- Schedule focus time. Shut down certain applications to channel energy into essential tasks. Recognize that email, social media and phone calls can have the greatest impact on distraction and lost focus. Keep your to-do list handy and write down what you need to respond to. Writing a note requires less thought shifting than answering an unrelated email or phone call.
- Use a blue light filter. When you are in front of the screens, consider using the blue light filter option. This is especially important when viewing screens closer to bedtime. For added protection, blue light filtering glasses are available in prescription and non-prescription form.
- Take breaks. Don’t forget to move away from the screens throughout the day. Taking a quick walk or throwing a ball for the dog can help your eyes and brain relax. Consider doing no-screen activities on your evenings and weekends like yardwork, crafts or home improvement projects. This will help you recover from your experiences with digital fatigue.
Consider how your screen time habits are affecting your ability to focus. If you are struggling with digital stressors, make a plan to reduce your exposure to them. Small adjustments to screen time habits can go a long way in avoiding digital fatigue.