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Disconnect to connect: Digital detox & workplace wellness

Disconnect to connect: Digital detox & workplace wellness

By Sally Bolton

When was the last time you lived without constant connection to the Internet?

For me, it was in 2011, working for Kopernik in the Oecusse enclave of Timor-Leste, one of the poorest regions of Southeast Asia. There was no Wi-Fi, no 3G and, much of the time, no electricity. If I needed Internet, I walked an hour to the Timor Telecom office, where it could take 30 minutes to open a single e-mail. Suffice to say, I learned to live without Internet.

Despite the day-to-day logistical challenges, life free from constant digital distractions was glorious.

Four years later, I’m still working for Kopernik, but now at their headquarters in Indonesia. And my life couldn’t be more different. I spend almost all my time in the office online, managing website content and social media channels and chasing that elusive goal of Inbox Zero. Outside the office, I often have late-night webinars or conference calls with partners in Washington D.C. Weekends are when I catch up on reading relevant reports and blogs.

International development work can be exciting. But it also can be incredibly mundane. As many others have noted here on WhyDev, most recently J., “Even in that mystical place called ‘the field’, it’s mostly office work: being part of internal business processes, handling information flow, meeting deadlines, responding to the needs of internal clients.” All this adds up to a lot of time staring at screens.

Even in my downtime, I’ve felt a growing sense of anxiety about the amount of time I spend staring at my phone. And I don’t think I’m alone. Indonesia is the social media capital of the world–there are more Twitter users in Jakarta than anywhere else on Earth. In cafes, I regularly see groups of friends sitting together in silence, everyone staring at their phones rather than talking to each other. Even now, I am composing this blog on my phone, while eating lunch!

Just as I know I should exercise more, eat less sugar and take a real lunch break, I’m fully aware that spending less time online will make me happier and healthier. But finding the resolve to really switch off has been a challenge. And the development sector is a demanding one, known for expecting employees to put in long hours, respond to messages immediately and be constantly available to colleagues in other time zones. For many aid workers, the desire for greater personal wellness gets thwarted by the pressure to meet professional responsibilities. I think development workers would be more comfortable disconnecting if more employers made it feel like an acceptable choice.

Here are some strategies my workplace has adopted to help cut down on employees’ e-mail stress:

1. Establish clear guidelines for how and when to use e-mail.

E-mail can be great for communicating with people in other locations, especially those in other time zones, and for sharing documents and updates. But sometimes it’s used as a substitute for face-to-face communication with people who are sitting alongside us. Appropriate e-mail etiquette is subjective, but some good tips include:

  • Make it clear exactly what action is required from the recipient/s, in five sentences or less. If it takes more than five sentences to explain, it may be easier to talk through the issue, rather than deal with it via e-mail.
  • Use the “Cc” and “Reply-all” functions sparingly. Ditto for all-staff e-mails.
  • Make the subject line clear and concise.
  • Set a deadline for response–and make it realistic–so the recipient understands the degree of urgency.

2. Use an internal social network like Yammer to share photos, updates and links to interesting reports and articles.

Almost everyone figured out how to use Facebook with zero training. Yammer functions just like Facebook, but is limited to people within your organisation. It can be a great tool for sharing all sorts of information across the organisation and allowing staff to provide encouragement, feedback and comments–without ending up with lengthy e-mail chains. Plus, staff can check in with the latest updates when it’s convenient for them.

3. Encourage staff to switch off on weekends.

Make it clear that staff do not have to check and respond to e-mails during the weekend. In exceptional circumstances, a phone call to staff could be a better way of intruding on their weekend if you need something from them urgently. Otherwise, it can wait until Monday.

4. Institute an organisation-wide digital detox.

At Kopernik’s headquarters in Bali, we’re preparing for Nyepi this Saturday, 21 March–the Balinese day of silence, meditation and reflection. The island’s airport closes, ports close, roads close, and people cannot leave their homes for 24 hours. No bright lights, working, lighting fires, or entertainment are allowed.

Rice terrace in Tegalalang, Bali.
Rice terrace in Tegalalang, Bali. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

In the spirit of Nyepi, the Kopernik team is taking a digital detox–making a public commitment to disconnect from our high-tech devices for 24 hours – or longer, for those who are up for the challenge. Free from digital distractions, we hope to reconnect with ourselves and with family and friends in a more meaningful way. And by asking our friends and family to sponsor our digital detox, we’re also raising funds to support Kopernik’s mission: to reduce poverty by connecting simple technology with last-mile communities.

I’ve made a commitment to go offline for one whole week: 21-28 March. I’m looking forward to focusing on strategic goals, rather than just responding to the constant stream of incoming messages. But I’m also scared I won’t be able to resist the temptation to check my e-mail, instant messaging and various social media accounts.

Fortunately, my family and friends have been full of encouragement, and have donated generously. Now if I sneak online during that week, I’ll not only be letting myself down, I’ll be letting my sponsors down, too. And, of course, it helps to know that the money raised will go directly towards connecting simple technology with the people who need it the most – in remote places like Oecusse.

If you’re in need of a digital detox, join us in disconnecting on Saturday, or for however long is right for you (check out some additional tips here). Then encourage your organisation to implement its own digital detox and take other steps like these to support wellness among development workers.

Is e-mail overload and Internet anxiety a problem in your workplace? What strategies are in place to help staff deal with it?

Sally Bolton is the Communications Manager at Kopernik. She previously served as a Kopernik Fellow in Oecusse, Timor-Leste and has worked for a range of other international organisations in Sydney, New York, Los Angeles, Mexico, Timor-Leste and Cambodia.

Featured image shows people using smartphones. Photo by Adam Fagen.

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One thought on “Disconnect to connect: Digital detox & workplace wellness

  1. Great stuff! I think digital detoxes are great, and also have to be integrated into the working week as much as possible. This means no checking email or using your phone while at meetings, taking time out to stare out of the window for 2 minutes, and screen-free Sundays.

    Check out my post on the latter here:

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