Digital detox: Switching off mindfully

Publish Date

11 APR 2019


Kai Beckmann


Not checking e-mails, muting out WhatsApp, switching off your smartphone completely – what may seem unimaginable to some people is part of the digital detox trend.

The borders between time at work and at home are blurring  

No doubt, digital communication has revolutionized the world of work. Today, people can work across thousands of miles without any problems and many companies offer their employees new, more flexible working models.  

In comparison with the past, our work has also become a far greater part of our personal lives. Smartphones and mobile Internet make everyone reachable always and everywhere. For many working people, it’s perfectly normal to reply to e-mails in the evening or to be reachable on the weekend. And the phrase “In urgent cases you can reach me at ...” is meanwhile standard wording in out-of-office messages. The triumphant advance of digital communication technologies has also led to the debate about work-life balance.  

And of course, digital communication has not only completely changed our working world. Our digital consumption has also multiplied in our personal lives. WhatsApp, Facebook and other platforms make us permanently reachable for friends and family. To be fair, we must admit that the boundaries between professional and private life are not blurred in only one direction.  

In a permanent state of alarm  

Being permanently reachable harbors various risks. On the one hand, our concentration suffers when we’re constantly responding to messages, viewing social media profiles of friends, or skimming headlines. According to a study by the consultancy Deloitte, we reach for our smartphones around 50 times a day. That's quite a bit of distraction when you consider that each time, our brain needs 15 minutes to focus entirely on a task.   

At the same time, permanent reachability can also cause stress. When our smartphones are always within reach, we feel the pressure of always having to answer messages and calls immediately. A study by Ludwig-Maximilians University of Munich and the customer service provider B2X shows that this pressure is indeed real. Accordingly, more than half of those surveyed expect others to reply immediately to messages. This can even lead to a situation where you compulsively check your messages every few minutes just to make sure you haven't missed anything. Many of you are certainly familiar with this.  

Digital detox is the trend  

More and more people are becoming aware of these disadvantages and are taking targeted actions to fight them. That’s what the term “digital detox” refers to. This ranges from deactivating push messages to predefined off- and online times up to logging off social networks. Smartphones now even offer a function to set time limits for apps and screen-free times. Some people even temporarily turn off their laptops and smartphones completely, which is definitely the most effective way to disconnect from cyberspace.   

Digital detox can be understood as a countermovement to the paradigm of permanent reachability. Many book authors, coaches and scientists are now preaching digital fasting. They report on self-attempts, often under the heading of mindfulness, which is a synonym for reflecting on the here and now and real experiences. Ironically, tech companies such as Google, Intel and SAP were the first to employ their own mindfulness trainers.   

Back in 2015, we also started a “Mindfulness” initiative with the goal of reducing employee stress and strain. Employee surveys tell us that the topic of work-life balance and mindfulness are growing in importance. That is why we’ve used insights from the initiative to develop further offers. For instance, since 2016 our Health Management unit has been offering eight-week mindfulness courses to all colleagues several times per year.   

Switching off is your responsibility  

On the weekend, my smartphone is not permanently switched on either. In really urgent cases, there are of course ways and means to reach me. However, I try to take deliberate breaks from using my phone. Managers have to set an example here. They need to demonstrate that permanent reachability is not demanded, and they must be mindful of themselves.

This also works without any special apps or server lockouts, as used by some companies. It’s far more effective to agree clear rules jointly the way we do at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany within the scope of our "mywork@" working model. Ultimately, it’s the responsibility of every individual to set limits for themselves – both at work and at home. After all, no employment contract stipulates that you’ve got to be reachable all the time. Everyone can and must press the off button themselves. 

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