Downtime and mindfulness in the digital world

As the global experiment of organisations going remote, as a whole, advances during the COVID crisis, the realities of being remote and always-on in a digitally connected world are settling in for a large number of us. We seem to be entering a new phase, from the initial phases of novelty, experimentation, trepidation about innovation, and idealisation of new technologies, where we thought we could, with some adjustment, adapt to remote work and going digital. This shift in phase can be gleamed from the many discussions in various webinars, panels and focus groups where HR practitioners speak of their own and their teams’ digital and psychological fatigue. The new way of working, relating, and living is causing them to take strain. Some have even whispered about the possibility of burnout, especially with the anxiety of being constantly monitored in the digital world and the real fear of losing their employment.

We could adapt the Gartner’s technology hype cycle to map the possible phase shifts we may experience through the management of the crisis and going remote and digital. The phases of the hype cycle are differentiated as follows: there is first an innovation trigger; early on there is the build-up of hype with the resulting peak of inflated expectations; the trough of disillusionment ensues as expectations are not met; development of more realistic expectations and a number of pilot successes of the new technology lead to the slope of enlightenment and uptake of the new technology; and then the rapid growth in uptake plateaus as mainstream adoption consolidates.

Gartner tech hype cycle

However, with the escalating pace and system-wide and worldwide impact of the COVID-19 crisis, the above phases may be crunched; and we may journey through the above cycle many times. Roughly we could map the first iteration through the cycle as follows. The COVID crisis and worldwide lockdowns were the trigger for organisations, as a whole, to go remote and digital. The expectation was that the organisation could function, as is, in a remote and digital way. It was a kind of plug-and-play of the remote and digital into the organisation’s legacy processes, systems and practices, which would allow work to continue. Not just continue though. There was the expectation that new levels of individual, team and organisational productivity would be achieved with digital technologies. However, at present, we are entering the trough and trying to figure out what could be the ‘new normal’. There is digital and psychological fatigue. A sense that something is missing; and rather than being energised we feel enervated. There is also fatigue from video conferencing and the extended hours of work and being constantly available. Some speak of the need to switch off while some managers think being offline means being idle.

Where does this need to switch off come from? And should we necessarily interpret being idle as being unproductive and lazy? Let us begin with the second question. Managers may perhaps be conflating issues here or not reflecting on the shift they require to make for going remote and digital. It is important to tease out, for example, if this a productivity problem or an issue of using ‘analogue’ and time-based management in a ‘digital’ shift; a staff motivation issue or managing remote teams problem;  a slack or trust problem. One way to think about this is to use McGregor’s differentiation of Theory X and Theory Y, which many of us have encountered in our HRM textbooks. We could ask if managers have altered from Theory Y to Theory X with the digital shift, believing they need to constantly task, monitor, and follow-up with team members because they are not internally motivated and will only pursue their self-interest. Are managers giving more negative feedback now that their teams are remote? Another way to think about it is the way managers are now perceiving their team members and, relatedly, whether they are relying solely on task-oriented leadership style at the expense of relationship-oriented style. We could ask if managers are now seeing team members as digital automatons, and engaging solely in a task-oriented manner with the digital shift because automatons do not need down time or time to switch off.

This leads to the first question, why humans need space and time to switch-off. There are two important concepts to consider. Resting, downtime states of the brain and mindfulness. Current neuroscience is dispelling popular myths about our brains. One of the infamous myths is that we only use a small percentage of our brain. Another myth is that when there are no stimuli the brain is not active – it is idle, and the neurons are ‘quiet’. These are myths and lead to many false inferences and misinterpretations. Our brains are always active even when we are asleep. Sleep is important as it is period when we (our brains) consolidate our memories and learning; and when there is an increase in cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) flow to eliminate harmful protein build-up in the brain. Remember the phrase of ‘sleeping on a problem’; and how see a problem, barrier, or obstacle differently the next day.

During the day when we at rest, not occupied by a task, just staring into space or day dreaming, our brains are still active. Importantly, during resting downtime states we are processing, consolidating our memories and learning as well as mulling and planning. We are also reflecting on our selves, others, and our pasts and futures – here the default mode network of the brain is active.

“Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life. A wandering mind unsticks us in time so that we can learn from the past and plan for the future. Moments of respite may even be necessary to keep one’s moral compass in working order and maintain a sense of self”

“Downtime is an opportunity for the brain to make sense of what it has recently learned, to surface fundamental unresolved tensions in our lives and to swivel its powers of reflection away from the external world toward itself” (Jabr, 2013)

When we are constantly online and digitally available to others, there is no space and time for down time. For example, previously, driving to work in the morning and back home later in the day gave us some down time – if the traffic did not annoy us. This was a passive choice of downtime. A more active choice is to deliberately engage in mindfulness. Originally referring to Buddhist meditation practices and to yoga, it is now seen as a psychological state of awareness.  

“Mindfulness is a type of meditation in which you focus on being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment. Practicing mindfulness involves breathing methods, guided imagery, and other practices to relax the body and mind and help reduce stress” (Mayo Clinic, 2018)

Research has suggested that mindfulness can help decrease emotional reactivity and stress, increase cognitive flexibility, enhance compassion, promote empathy, and develop quality of life (Davis and Hayes, 2012). Mindfulness enables one to live in the moment, which needs to be differentiated from the perpetual digital present of being always on.

Managers still need to take care of their teams even if they are at home. They need to consider their work loads, their availability and productivity as well as their need for downtime and space to consolidate, reflect, reframe and recharge. Managers themselves need to practice downtime in an always-on digitally connected world. Thus, wellbeing programmes and need for balance are important. HR practitioners have an important role to play in this and help leaders and teams navigate during the crisis and beyond.

References

Association for Psychological Science. (2012). Rest is not idleness: reflection is critical for development and well-being. Retrieved, 24 April 2020, from https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/releases/rest-is-not-idleness-reflection-is-critical-for-development-and-well-being.html

Davis, D.M., and Hayes, J. A. (2012). What are the benefits of mindfulness? Retrieved, 24 April 2020, from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/07-08/ce-corner

Gruberger, M., Ben-Simon, E., Levkovitz, Y., Zangen, A., & Hendler, T. (2011). Towards a neuroscience of mind-wandering. Retrieved, 24 April 2020, from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2011.00056/full

Jabr, F. (2013). Why your brain needs more downtime. Retrieved, 24 April 2020, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/mental-downtime/

Mayo Clinic. (2018). Mindfulness exercises. Retrieved, 24 April 2020, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/consumer-health/in-depth/mindfulness-exercises/art-20046356

Mineo, L. (2018). With mindfulness, life’s in the moment. Retrieved, 24 April 2020, from https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2018/04/less-stress-clearer-thoughts-with-mindfulness-meditation/  

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