How staying less connected reduces stress
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How staying less connected reduces stress

How staying less connected reduces stress

None of us enjoys a culture of always being connected if it spirals out of control

Summer is a period when we look forward to getting away from the humdrum of the daily routine to reconnect with family members, spend time with friends, travel and relax.

Engage with people during this period and they are much friendlier, calmer, thoughtful and all round happier with their place in the world. But it doesn’t last, we go back to work and the treadmill starts once more, we feel anxious and our health suffers. I am inclined to believe this has something to do with the way modern working environments are structured.

Gloria Mark, a professor in the Department of Informatics at University of California, co-authored a 2016 paper in which the research team connected knowledge workers to wireless heart rate monitors for 12 working days. During this period, the subjects’ heart rate variability was recorded – this technique is often used as a measure of mental stress. In parallel they also tracked the workers’ time on their computers.

This enabled the researchers to accurately correlate checking email with stress levels. The researchers concluded that: “The longer one spends on email in [a given] hour the higher is one’s stress for that hour.”

Elsewhere, research teams have discovered similar patterns between checking email and happiness levels. In a 2019 study, which was published in The International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health, the research team examined longitudinal trends in the health of a cohort of 5,000 Swedish workers.

They found that continued exposure to “high information and communication technology demands” – in other words the feeling of always being connected – was related to “suboptimal” health outcomes.

The pattern remained present, despite the researchers adjusting their data set for distinguishing elements such as age, gender, socioeconomic status, BMI, job strain and social support.

Leslie Perlow, who is a professor at Harvard Business School, undertook an interesting experiment with a group of consultants from the Boston Consulting Group (BCG). Perlow introduced them to a novel technique, which she called predictable time off (PTO). During the PTO, the consultants were allocated specific times every week when they were permitted to completely disconnect from email and the phone. This was done with the support of their colleagues. The result: the consultants became decidedly happier.

Prior to Perlow familiarising the consultants with PTO, only 27 per cent of the workers reported that they were excited to start work in the morning. Following the lowering in the level of communications, this number markedly rose to over 50 per cent.

Correspondingly, the levels of job satisfaction among the consultants went up from 50 per cent to 70 per cent. Against the conventional wisdom, reducing the time spent on electronic communications didn’t make the consultants feel less productive.

Instead, they reported that they felt they were more “efficient and effective” by over 20 points. When Perlow probed how they ended up in this unhappy situation, the consultants stated that demands on their time crept up on them. They made themselves accessible to customers and colleagues in different time zones, and once that spiral was established, the expectation for faster response times became the norm. So others also began reaching out to them and soon they were overwhelmed.

None of us enjoys a culture of always being connected if it spirals out of control, leaving us feeling trapped. Perhaps when you are back from your summer break, recall the feeling of relaxation you had and how healthy you felt before you dive back into the frenetic world of always-on connectivity.

Rehan Khan is a principal consultant for BT and a novelist

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