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July 27, 2021

Technology vs. Employee Mental Health: Where Are We Now?

Illustration of a cloud boxing a tablet

As the world settles into life during a global pandemic, there’s another outbreak following close on Covid’s tail: employee mental health issues.

With nearly half of US workers suffering from some form of mental health issue since Covid hit, the problem is escalating fast — leaving companies fighting to make sure their employees don’t suffer.

But with many people still working from home, and some companies going permanently remote, some experts believe the increasing reliance on technology is adding fuel to the fire.

While for other employers, the introduction of wellbeing apps, timesaving software and enhanced communication tools could just be the answer to making employee’s work-lives that much better.

Needless to say, it’s a sticky topic.

To get to the bottom of it, we checked in with a few leading HR experts to find out exactly what the effects of technology on employee mental health are at this stage of the game. Here’s what they said.

Effects of technology on employee mental health: The expert view

  • Technology is the challenge… and the solution
  • Tech makes employee work-life balance harder
  • Fast information, fast burnout
  • Technology helps keep remote working personal
  • What can employers do to support mental health (even when employees are working remotely)?

Technology is the challenge… and the solution

Jessica Miller-Merrell’s resume reads like an HR career wishlist.

Author, consultant, founder of Workology, co-host of the Workology podcast, a Forbes top 50 social media influencer and a global speaker, Jessica is responsible for bringing accessible (and fun!) HR resources to the masses.

When we asked her what the effects of technology on employee mental health are, she was quick to share some praise for tech.

“We saw in the early days of the pandemic how workplace tech can keep us connected, when many employees were working from home for the first time in their careers. We depended heavily on video conferencing, Slack channels, and tech integrations to keep our business going,” she says.

Despite the clear pros, Jessica believes the pandemic brought out the darker side of technology too.

“Even those who were comfortable with remote work had never experienced working remotely during a global pandemic. Zoom burnout is real, and the feelings of separation and isolation for many employees added to the challenges they were already experiencing at home.”

— Jessica Miller-Merrell, Workology

But according to Jessica, there’s a pretty nifty solution. She believes technology’s negative side can be counterbalanced with… more technology. (Yep, you read that right.)

“We’ve seen some really interesting tech integrations that support wellness and employee engagement — not brand-new tech, but supportive technologies that we can add to our HRIS and other existing platforms that make it easier for employees to communicate to peers and managers,” she says. 

Here’s how Jessica suggests supporting employee wellbeing:

  • “The healthiest way managers can support employees is with genuine empathy.
  • When we ask ‘How are you?’ we should really listen to the answer.
  • We can encourage employees to set healthy boundaries by turning off notifications evenings and weekends, and set an example for them by doing the same,” she says.

Tech makes employee work-life balance harder

If you’ve been in the HR space for long, you’ll have heard of Romy Newman.

As co-founder of the women’s career community site Fairygodboss, Romy’s dedicated to making the workplace a fairer and more inclusive space.

So, when we asked her about the effects of technology on employee mental health, we knew she’d have some great insights.

“Technology is absolutely a double-edged sword. It has an amazing ability to connect us and to enable asynchronous work, which then supports greater flexibility. However, the downside of that connectedness is that the idea of ‘leaving the office behind’ has completely disappeared,” she explains. 

So, how has tech changed the way we work?

“In the past 15 months, many of us have struggled with the erosion of boundaries between work and home. Also, an understanding of work flexibility or flex schedules suggests that people should be available during more non-traditional hours, i.e, past the traditional 9-5,” she says.

"Like any great tool, the impact of technology comes down to how it's used. And to maintain mental health, both individuals and managers need to create and allow for boundaries.”

— Romy Newman, President and Co-founder, Fairygodboss

The challenge of maintaining a good work-life balance in the tech era is real. But Romy’s got some great tips to keep work in check — and it’s all about building boundaries.

“My #1 mental wellness technique is the concept ‘DNB’ which I learned about when I worked at Google years ago. DNB stands for ‘Do Not Book’. I use DNB on my calendar to block time for my kids, concentration, breaks, housework or even just thinking breaks. Since we have a shared calendar, a tool which is integral to dispersed and asynchronous work, it's essential to claim time for yourself. By claiming that time, you can protect your work boundaries and also hold yourself accountable for taking pre-planned breaks,” she says.

Fast information, fast burnout

If you need to know anything about building an inclusive workplace, better ask Stacey Gordon.

As Founder of Rework Work, Stacey is committed to helping companies build supportive, inclusive teams that feed employee wellbeing from day one.

So, when we asked Stacey what she thinks about the technology vs. mental health debate, she was quick to lay out both sides of the story.

“One of the main pros of workplace tech is efficiency — access to information and data that would normally take hours, days or even weeks to compile. Now you can work from anywhere. But the cons are that we’re always on. You feel like you always have to work, have to answer quickly and don’t get a break.”

— Stacey Gordon, Rework Work

But like Jessica, Stacey believes that although tech can cause problems, it also provides the answer.

“The best uses of workplace tech to combat poor mental health include changing email rules, so they can’t be received before or after a specific time. Also, changing calendars to automatically include a 15-minute break between meetings or to block out an actual lunch hour so meetings can’t be scheduled into them,” she says.

It’s all about systems that not only help you set, but also stick to your boundaries.

Technology helps keep remote working personal

For Fred Kaffenberger, technology is everything.

“We're only cracking the surface of the enterprise self-service business intelligence revolution. Let's put power tools in the hands of the business, where people can make better decisions, quicker. Never write a report when you can automate a process instead,” he says on his LinkedIn page.

As Director of Marketing at fully remote Power BI company P3 Adaptive, technology is part of the everyday — and for Fred, that means using it for good (and for fun 😜). 

“As a fully remote firm, we at P3 Adaptive know that a healthy workplace is one where co-workers connect personally as well as on projects. So, we have a remote Friday happy hour to celebrate the start of the weekend. This not only provides a chance to catch up personally, but it also signals the beginning of the weekend as time to connect with friends and family,” says Fred.

And that’s not all.

“With the flexibility of remote work, we also encourage employees to schedule focus time and to limit notifications outside of work hours,” he says.

Because it can’t all be on the employee to set the right boundaries with tech. Employers need to acknowledge and respect those boundaries once they’re in place. 

What can employers do to support mental health (even when employees are working remotely)?

With the rise in mental health issues, many employers are desperately searching for new ways to combat the problem — but post-Covid, traditional ideas aren’t always practical. 

To avoid the negative effects of technology in the workplace, here’s a quick checklist of simple ways employers can support in-person and remote workers (à la our HR experts):

  • Set automation rules and boundaries: When you have your nose to the grindstone, it can be difficult to find time to think about boundaries. Do the hard work for employees by insisting every single employee sets automation rules that help keep work where it belongs. Think: changing email rules so they only come through between certain times.
  • Use supportive tech: There’s a ton of great tech built to boost mental health. Look into meditation apps, integratable software, and communication tools and make them available for your employees.
  • Show empathy: It always helps to know someone’s got your back. If you can see an employee is struggling, give them some time and attention to find out how they are, ask how you can help, and actually listen to the answer. Regular 1-1s are a great way to spot anyone who’s having a hard time.
  • Block out DNB time: We all need a little extra headspace now and then. Encourage employees to schedule specific ‘Do Not Book’ breaks in their calendars to allow extra downtime or thinking space.
  • Use tech for fun: Help employees feel included in the team from wherever they are by running fun Happy Hour events online. Make sure to schedule them at a time that will work for most employees (think: when they’re not busy at work or desperate to get home).

Use tech to help (not hurt) employee mental health

Employee mental health is on a proven decline, and there’s no doubt the increased pressures of a tech-fueled lifestyle are  at least partly to blame.

But technology isn’t just the problem — it’s the solution too.

From better team building and communication to automated boundary-setting features, there are a ton of opportunities to use tech for good — but it’s up to employers and HR leaders to make sure employees are utilizing these tools, and that leadership is respecting that.

With the right practices and a belief in the use of tech for good, employee wellbeing can become an everyday reality.