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How to avoid toxic, digital workplace habits and keep remote workers happy and healthy

Rex Fan, Lead Behavioural Insights Advisor at Bupa UK, shares with us the toxic digital habits that we should look out for–and strive to avoid–in the workplace to promote a healthy work-life balance and mental wellbeing.

By Subarna Ganguly, Staff Writer

Last updated August 2, 2022

It’s easy to assume that more flexible working would bring nothing but benefits to employees. The chance to work from a different part of the country for a few days. Flexibility to start the day with a morning jog or a coffee in the sunshine–instead of being sandwiched between sweaty train commuters. An early finish to take a front row seat at your child’s piano recital. Priceless.

Although there are numerous advantages to remote working, there is also a risk that employees can develop unhealthy work habits. In turn, this can negatively impact a workplace culture as well as employees’ wellbeing.

The pandemic has accelerated a shift, in some industries, to hybrid or remote working and the increased use of digital communications. Technology has, undoubtedly, advanced and enhanced the way we work, from keeping us easily connected wherever we are, to making processes faster and more efficient. However, as with most things, if put to use by companies in the wrong way, those same digital communication channels can quickly turn toxic.

According to Bupa, a third of UK adults think that remote working has negatively impacted their mental health, while almost a quarter (23%) say it has eroded their sense of self-confidence. Meanwhile, research by Breathe revealed that toxic workplace culture is costing the UK economy £20.2 billion per year. Research by the European Parliament found that although remote working provides many positives such as higher levels of autonomy and flexibility, it also results in the ‘autonomy paradox’— causing stress and work-life balance disruptions.

“From video calls to instant messaging, digital technology may have enabled employees to stay connected…however, it has also caused wellbeing issues, such as high stress and low quality of sleep.”
Rex Fan, Lead Behavioural Insights Advisor, Bupa UK.

Google has seen a rise in the number of searches for “signs of a toxic workplace”, so what are they? A poor company culture can take many forms, including inadequate management styles, a lack of work-life balance or the absence of wellbeing support.

“The pandemic has highlighted the importance of good health and wellbeing habits, in and outside of work,” explains Rex Fan, Lead Behavioural Insights Advisor for Bupa UK.“From video calls to instant messaging, digital technology may have enabled employees to stay connected, despite the distance created by remote or hybrid working. However, it has also caused wellbeing issues, such as high stress and low quality of sleep. To combat this, managers need to set technological boundaries to avoid a digitally toxic workplace and help their employees to thrive, wherever they’re working from.”

According to Fan, there are 5 main toxic digital habits that we should look out for–and strive to avoid–in the workplace:

1. An ‘always on’ attitude

Is it common for you to send and receive emails outside of office hours? Without defined boundaries between work and leisure time, you may always have half an eye on your inbox, making it impossible to switch off completely. However, downtime is essential to increasing your productivity and avoiding burnout. Ringfence work and non-work time by blocking breaks into your work calendar. This signals to colleagues you’re taking regular time for yourself and encourages them to do the same. Make sure you log out of your work systems at the end of the day and plan something fun to do straight after, so you’re not tempted to work for longer – a meal with friends perhaps or some exercise.

2. An anti-social agenda

Making friends with our colleagues can boost innovation, collaboration and our sense of connection, but socialising can fall by the wayside when we work from home. It may require a bit of lateral thinking, but there are still plenty of ways to go about it. Consider opening video calls slightly earlier, so those who want to can have a chat before the meeting starts. Or start a team social club. Activities could include a lunchtime picnic in the park for hybrid workers, or a Zoom cooking class for those who are fully remote.

3. Video call overload

Video calls may be an effective way to communicate as a remote or hybrid team and can help combat work-from-home loneliness. But, if not properly balanced with other forms of communication, they can also become a source of stress. Being expected to constantly present yourself formally via webcam can be tiring. Your brain must also work much harder to keep you alert, alongside the need to decode the non-verbal cues that others display. If video calls leave you feeling drained, speak to your manager about mixing up collaboration styles–shared documents and audio-only calls are all good alternatives.

4. Feeling silenced

Is it often the loudest person on your video call who gets their ideas heard, while quieter people feel less motivated to share, even though they might have good ideas? If that’s the case in your team, it’s worth raising it. Small changes can make a big difference. You could ask your manager to encourage the use of team chat facilities within video calls, for example, so that everyone has an equal opportunity to chip in. Or to organise smaller online meetings, so there’s less pressure on people to share their views with a large audience.

5. Micromanaging

Being bombarded with direct messages or emails from your manager all day can not only be tiring and stressful, but it can also lower your confidence in your ability to work independently. Although micromanaging is unfortunately quite common in a remote or hybrid setting, there are ways to combat it. Be open with your manager, if you feel comfortable, using language like ‘I feel’, rather than ‘you make me feel’. They may not even realise the impact it’s having on you. Once they do, you can brainstorm a new style of working that suits you both.

Avoiding toxic, digital habits is key to healthy, happy, and productive employees. The good news is that there is a growing awareness of what contributes to a negative workplace culture. By staying vigilant and keeping the lines of communication open, we can stop any harmful practices in their tracks, before they have the chance to disrupt our working lives and our wellbeing.

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