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The digital dilemma — is technology a force for good or evil for employee wellbeing

The digital dilemma — is technology a force for good or evil for employee wellbeing

Catherine Darroue assesses the impact of technology on employees’ health and well-being

It comes as no surprise that digital technology has transformed the way many businesses operate and support their employees. From the Internet of Things (IoT), communications platforms and collaboration software to smartphones, apps and virtual services, tech is an undeniably powerful force, something that has become glaringly evident over the last few months.

But, when it comes to its impact on employees’ health and well-being, is it a force for good or for evil — or a little bit of both? And what can employers do to leverage the positive influences and diminish the negative impact on workers?

The positive: Technology and digital innovation as a health promoter

According to the recent Aetna International Digital Health Dilemma 2020 report, survey respondents — including over 1000 from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — have clearly bought into technology’s ability to improve connectivity, collaboration and productivity and, as a result, worker health and well-being. 93 per cent of workers in the UAE say technology lets them complete simple tasks quickly, connect with co-workers across different locations and receive job support. Of those, 85 per cent say technology lets them manage time better, thus reducing stress levels. And 54 per cent of UAE workers say technology helps them improve physical and mental health overall.

Furthermore, UAE employees clearly believe that technological innovation and digital tools and services could further help them to improve their health. One area of note is mental health — while less than 40 per cent of respondents say they currently use video, text-based or telephonic solutions to help manage their mental health, an equal number said that they might consider these options in future.

The negative: Technology as a health detractor

While most employees recognise the advantages of workplace technology, they do acknowledge that it has its drawbacks. For example, 72 per cent of UAE respondents believe that being able to have a company mobile phone to handle work calls and emails remotely helps them better manage their mental health. Yet almost the same percentage (69 per cent) worry that they use their phones too much. That’s probably why 61 per cent try — but apparently fail — to check their phones less often.

A big concern is that digital technology contributes to an “always-on” mindset. Almost three quarters (73 per cent) of UAE respondents admit to checking their phones first thing in the morning for work-related messages, whilst nearly an equal number (74 per cent) do the same thing right before going to bed.

Striking the right balance

There is a clear opportunity for organisations to harness the positives that technology enables — and an equally clear imperative for organisations to diminish the negatives that technology brings. And while the coronavirus outbreak will one day run its course, few organisations will fully return to the norms, cultures, policies and practises that were in place pre-pandemic. It’s now more incumbent upon organisations than ever to understand how to apply technology in ways that enable collaborative, flexible, productive and healthy working practises for the benefit of all.

Curbing “always-on” culture and employee burnout
Employees clearly see the value that workplace technology brings, but they just as clearly see its shortcomings. They want to unplug when they’re out of the (virtual) office, which can be difficult to do when they carry all the tools of their trade in their pockets.

Employers should leverage employees’ call for more help curbing “always-on” culture and tech overload by:

Establishing workplace policies: If organisations provide technology to workers and expect them to use it, they should also erect guardrails to help individuals unplug outside office hours. And those policies should be enforced — not to punish workers but to protect them. In addition, in a world where employees work from home, remotely or even internationally, careful consideration needs to be given to alternatives or schedules for in-person meetings, which the data shows are of benefit to employees.

Communicating clearly: Communicate workplace policies and educate workers on how to keep work from bleeding into personal life. And that means limiting work-related communications to work hours. Again, organisations operating internationally or across different time zones need to provide a degree of flexibility, give and take, and trust when it comes to establishing boundaries for working hours and out-of-hours communications.

Leading by example: It’s important that business leaders model the company culture they are promoting — especially since they often struggle more with work/life balance than many of their workers. Some practises, such as in-person meetings, might be difficult for international or virtual teams. Being available through one-to-one calls to offer emotional and professional support is a powerful way for leadership teams to explore new or improved guidance or support mechanisms to help meet employees’ needs.

Harnessing the power of virtual health and digital well-being
Some organisations and workers alike have embraced digital health tools, as evidenced by the proliferation of wearable fitness trackers, joint mobile health applications and workplace wellness programs that are tied to them. These tools can help members establish goals, set fitness schedules and stay on top of their well-being by sending reminders whenever a member is due for a check-up, flu shot or repeat prescription.

Final word
Widespread adoption of digital technology by businesses and the health and well-being industry has been accelerating for years, and that acceleration has only increased due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the pandemic plays out and whenever it ends, we will never fully return to pre-2020 attitudes and norms — nor should we.

Business leaders today have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reconsider how their organisations deploy technologies and digital tools to help improve workers’ health and well-being. Working in tandem with their health benefits and technology partners, business leaders should harness lessons learnt during the pandemic to create a more holistic approach to employee well-being, embracing the power of technology to positively influence health and well-being.

Catherine Darroue is the senior director of Customer Proposition and global head of Corporate Communications at Aetna International

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