The current mental health crisis at work hasn’t really got anything to do with bad bosses or lame line managers. Or the way businesses are run. Or people working from home. Or the aftermath of Covid-19.
I’m not diminishing the importance of all of these things – they obviously all have a huge impact on employee mental health – but there is another clear culprit which has been bubbling under the surface for much longer.
This is the main factor negatively impacting on our collective mental health both professionally and personally. And our ability to be creative, and come up with original, innovative business ideas.
While it professes to connect us, technology disconnects us from our experiences, our feelings and others; levels of loneliness are at an all time high, despite the thousands of ‘friends’ many of us have on social media.
The many platforms and notifications constantly interrupt our flow which, as the chief executive of a creative agency, really concerns me. I believe that creativity is borne out of a deep connection with what you’re doing and these moments are happening less and less as technology gets more and more ingrained in our lifestyles.
People have no space to ‘be’
People have no space to just ‘be’ anymore. The lines between work and relaxation have become so blurred due to technology. We never get a break because whether you’re sending an email, or writing a comment on Instagram, it all causes stress in our nervous systems.
We have no time to decompress anymore because our lives have been so infiltrated by technology. It’s frying people’s nervous systems. That’s why technology is killing our creativity and our mental health.
It’s not just our nervous systems that technology is messing with, either, it’s also how we relate to each other as humans. The mask of a screen means there are so many opportunities to be inhuman, or dehumanise others, through cyberbullying or trolling or existing only in an echo chamber.
Pushing back against the tsunami of tech
I’ve tried to push back against the devastating tsunami of technology, both in a personal and professional way. For instance, every day I will try to make space for a sacred, silent time where I meditate or do yoga without any tech in sight. I also try and do an activity that is not related to technology, like a walk, and switch off all devices off by 7pm. I also go on silent retreats, sometimes for as long as six weeks.
I’ve tried hard to encourage my employees to join me in pushing back against technology too but, to be honest, I feel like my efforts have been in vain.
For a long time, I banned wi-fi in the office because I believe that having instant, always-on access to that much data perpetuates the problem. But people got really cross and starting turning it on when I wasn’t in the office.
Compulsion to check is killing our creativity and mental health
I’ve also tried in the past to ban all communication before 3pm for people’s mental health but also their creative capacity, meaning they couldn’t check channels like slack or messenger. That didn’t go down well, either. When people’s phones bleep now, they seem unable to leave them, and they have to see what a message says; it’s like an absolute compulsion and it’s killing our creativity and mental health. You can’t be creative if you don’t have time and space and stillness.
I believe the best creative work comes from a relaxed but concentrated higher, completely present state. Not a stressed, fight-or-flight, always-on one, scanning the landscape constantly for the next dopamine-fuelling message. Today, we live so much in this stressed latter state that creativity is forced and we are literally trying to steamroll creativity out of ourselves. As well as producing less good work, this makes the creative process a much less enjoyable experience, too.
A week without tech is too terrifying for today’s workers
Another thing I’ve done at work is I’ve made it known to everyone in the office that they can go on a meditation retreat and we will pay for it, and they can do this during work time without needing to take any holiday. How many employees do you think have taken me up on this offer in eight years?
Zero. Yes, that’s right, not one soul.
I think modern lives have become so embedded in technology that the idea of being without it for a week is terrifying.
Here’s what concerns me most…
But the thing that concerns me most is that those of us of a certain age still remember a time when technology was not so embedded, and we know what it’s like to feel ‘normal’. Whereas the younger generations feel like technology is like one of their limbs and don’t understand that this sensory overload is not good for them. They have no benchmark to know, and so their nervous systems are breaking and they don’t know how to return to emotional regulation.
Of course, employers have a big role to play in employee wellbeing and we should do everything we can to foster good mental health in our people. However, we can write happiness manifestos (as we have done) and try our best to offer helpful interventions like yoga and therapy, but the mental health crisis will not resolve itself until people take a personal stance to put boundaries around their technology use. At the end of the day, it’s up to individuals to take care of their own mental health.
Do people have the ability to make good choices anymore…?
And, to be quite frank, I’m not sure people today have the ability to make good choices anymore. Perhaps a decade ago, people just needed to slow down and do a bit of yoga and meditation. However, we need much more than that to turn the tide now.
As my meditation teacher says, meditation is the sandpaper to smooth the rough surfaces of the mind. But sandpaper is no longer enough to ease people’s minds; what we need now is a sandblaster.
Afternote: Edward Coram-James would love to hear from other employees on any successful ways they have found to push back on this damaging trend of technology killing our creativity and mental health – please get in touch with [email protected] if you have had any success on this front we can share.
Coram-James is chief executive officer of Go Up, an award-winning SEO agency in London.
This opinion piece was written on the back of an interview with Coram-James, as part of this feature here.