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Opinion: Technology was meant to be our great liberator but instead it became our prison

We’re addicted to technology but as with most addictions, we don’t believe we have a problem, writes Shane Cradock.

Shane Cradock CEO performance specialist

LAST WEEK I was looking out across the beautiful landscape of the Burren in Clare while on a hike.

My mind was clear, calm and carefree.

If I am honest, I hadn’t felt as connected to myself in a long time. The irony was that I was entirely disconnected from the outside world.

I was attending a retreat and on the first day, the organisers recommended handing in all technology. Not just turning it off, but actually handing it in. Shock horror.

For many of the people there, that wasn’t an easy thing to do and some couldn’t bring themselves to do it. 

I handed all of my tech in because I am aware of the benefits of being disconnected. Although I run similar retreats for business leaders, I didn’t find it easy not being contactable.

Without doubt, we are unhealthily addicted to our phones, laptops and tablets. For many, handing your phone over is like giving a part of your soul away.

I pondered, have we become slaves to technology, and if so what are the consequences? Will our technology addiction worsen, and if so, how?

Always on

I’ve been working with CEOs, entrepreneurs and executives for more than 20 years across 50 different industries.

Over the past 10 years, one area that seems to be prevalent in every sector is the ‘always-on’ mindset, and the increasing challenge to ‘turn off’ after work hours. The cost of this mindset to quality of life and quality of business can be severe.

Technology has enabled us to make rapid progress in all areas of our lives but it also brings its own challenges. The most damaging challenge is the unrelenting distraction and constant interruption. Sometimes, you just need to learn that it’s okay to switch off.

A study from the University of California showed workers spend on average 11 minutes per project before they’re interrupted but it takes on average 25 minutes to refocus on where they were before the distraction. If you take into account every worker across an organisation, that’s a lot of profit down the drain.

When I work with clients, we typically see a minimum increase of 30% in productivity within two to three weeks. We usually achieve this through better managing interruptions. I’m always amazed at the number of intelligent, senior business people who always have their email open.

Sometimes remaining connected isn’t actually that ‘smart’.

The number of business and consumer emails sent and received daily is set to exceed 293 billion in 2019 and reach 347 billion by the end of 2023, according to a Radicati study.

When I showed one particular client the research around email distractions, they decided to experiment by asking their team not to look at their emails until 12pm.

They told me productivity increased by 50% across the team within three weeks. It started slipping back because people started secretly looking at their emails again. Going forward, the director decided to disable email entirely until 12pm.

Herein lies one of the biggest problems I’ve come across. We’re addicted to technology but as with most addictions, we don’t believe we have a problem.

A 2018 study of worker’s well-being showed employees who were expected to be contactable 24/7 suffered increased stress levels and anxiety.

We saw the legal backlash of this last year, in the case where an Irish woman was awarded €7,500 for working nearly 60 hour weeks because she was expected to answer emails and texts out of business hours.

The hidden disease

Many business executives I work with are on the verge of burnout, something an extended holiday won’t cure. This is caused by doing too much, and central to that is the inability to ‘switch off’ which is enabled by technology.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently classified ‘burnout’ as a medical diagnosis, including the condition in the International Classification of Diseases. It is work-specific and doesn’t apply to other areas of life.

The three main symptoms are:

  • Feeling depleted of energy or exhausted
  • Feeling mentally distanced from or cynical about one’s job
  • Problems getting one’s job done successfully

If you think most people aren’t in this category, think again.

A recent Gallup study of almost 7,500 full-time employees found that 23% reported feeling burned out at work ‘very often’ or ‘always’ while an additional 44% reported feeling burned out ‘sometimes’.

This has now become a strategic issue for organisations. The reality is that no-one is immune from burnout, and the costs to organisations both from tired staff and those that do suffer burn-out run to billions.

Some helpful tips to prevent burnout include:

  • Proactively manage your work fitness (physical, mental and emotional).
  • Create a results list, not a to-do list and prioritise ruthlessly around it.
  • Realise that you can’t get everything done so prioritise, prioritise, prioritise and help your team to as well, consistently.
  • Take mental breaks during the day, where you deliberately clear your mind.
  • Decide what time to stop work every day. And then actually stop at that time.
  • Work out an email strategy with your team and peers. Get taken off the CCs if at all possible
  • Learn meditation. It’s a powerful de-stress and concentration tool.
  • Never look at email for the first hour of your day.

Tips like these will have a positive impact but to have a systemic change, we need more strategic conversations between leaders and employees.

I think it’s encouraging to see more firms explore the four-day week model, but we can go further. We need to discuss workloads and the use of resources – even cash-rich organisations can’t do everything.

However, that’s the way many organisations work, heaping a heavier workload onto an already fatigued staff.

Technology was meant to be the great liberator but instead it has become our prison.

As my retreat in Clare came to an end, I was struck by a conversation between myself and some other entrepreneurs. They realised how refreshed and relaxed they felt after a week off the grid.

Most importantly, however, they had also seen the example they were setting for their teams, in terms of how they work and manage themselves.

Therein lies part of the solution. Business leaders set the tone for their organisations and that tone shouldn’t include a constant, incessant ding. 

Shane Cradock is a CEO performance specialist with 16 years’ experience as a business adviser of Fortune 500 companies.

After suffering a breakdown in his mid-20s, he realised the impact of prioritising wellness and now he teaches CEOs to develop strategies to boost their performance and get more from life. 

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About the author:

Shane Cradock  / CEO performance specialist

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