The hype surrounding wellbeing concepts can blind us to their true value

Digital detox. Does the phrase make you roll your eyes or grab your attention? Lately, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the idea of switching off from technology, particularly your smart phone (if people still call them that as they are so ubiquitous) has become a media fad. A litmus test for this might be how much air time BBC R2 give the subject. Over the past few weeks it has figured a lot, particularly Chris Evans referencing it in a Japanese themed week and a Friday morning interview with the neuroscientist Dr Jack Lewis who shared his tops tips for a digital detox. No doubt the Daily mail is jumping on the bandwagon as well.

None of this is new. The idea of finding a balance between using technology in a smart way and the danger of it becoming an obstacle for human interaction has been debated many times. But are we learning? Are we applying the lessons? No one disagrees with the ideas put forward by Jack Lewis, but how practical are his ideas for modern workplaces?

People are changing. Humans are still evolving, and technology is not going away. It needs to adapt, but we also need to adapt to it.

Everyone needs a break – it’s a natural detox. The difference now is we have given it a ‘term’ that is easily identified by the media anyone who need a ‘thing’ to identify with. That ‘fad’ element might have workplace professionals turning reaching for the off switch on the radio, but it doesn’t mean the arguments are wrong. We just need to tailor them to different working environments, cultures and team. Put aside the marketing speak emanating from Japanese gurus championing ikigai and find out what works for your workplace.


Encouraging people to choose wellbeing

There is nothing remotely wrong in encouraging people to get out of the workplace. So, why not give employees a map with a route in the local area taking them through some green spaces for up to half an hour at a time. Why not take a leaf out of the West Wing and have walking meetings? If we can work anywhere nowadays because of technology then why not – after all, whilst it’s backed by research, it’s hardly rocket science to know that fresh air and a connection (or reconnection) with nature helps us reboot our brains. Not only that but it reduces stress, setting us up for a better night’s sleep and guess what, a better working day afterwards.

One of the easiest detox measures is banning eating at desks. It’s not heavy handed. It’s good for you. It’s not hygienic, it’s not good for you. Eating as a community, breaking bread together is good for our mental health.

Chris Evans hit upon a great idea in what was a slight stilted and yet fascinating conversation with a Japanese writer, explaining ikigai. We’ve also investigated it and there are lessons for us in the UK. We are prone not only to long hours at work, but also the rigours of the commute and an often-unaddressed issue of digital presenteeism.

One recent survey suggested that the average British worker now puts in an extra 10 hours a week, in line with a similar report from the TUC which valued the amount of overtime put in by people at £31 billion. This extra work in the UK occurs in the digital workplace and with many damaging outcomes in terms of our wellbeing and productivity. Ikigai is a useful way of framing the challenge we face in achieving a balanced and purposeful life. It is a timely conversation to have as we address the intersections of the various facets of our lives and the erosions of the walls between them and our physical and digital selves.

There are all sorts of ways we can shape our workplace by design, through leadership and management decisions and individual choices that will help us strike the right balance between being smart about technology and it is taking over our lives. What we need to do is have the guts to make practical decisions as leaders, as managers in the workplace – not just designers – to encourage a shift in our working culture. That’s why the idea of a digital detox is a good one.

What must do is not let what might be a potential fatal mix of traditional white-collar management attitudes, modern obsession with technology and a reactionary distaste for marketing speak and celebrity status crowd and confuse what is a sensible message we all need to hear and act upon.


Georgia Elliott-Smith is Head Wellbeing at workplace consultancy 360  and a WELL AP and Fitwel Ambassador