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Mental Health Awareness Week: are you addicted to tech?

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 17 May 2023

Technology addiction is more prevalent among professionals than you might think. It can lead to a drop in productivity, anxiety, depression and then worse addictions.

Technology addiction isn’t easy to define. Excessive gaming, problematic internet use, doom scrolling – all come under the umbrella of technology addiction. Gaming addiction affects between 12% and 18% of the population, according to Professor Marcantonio Spada, Professor of Addictive Behaviours and Mental Health, and Dean of the School of Applied Sciences at London South Bank University, where he is also the Deputy Lead of the Centre for Addictive Behaviours Research: “How many people overall at any moment in time now have some kind of problematic behaviour with technology? I would say in total, if you bring everything together, maybe 30% to 40% of the population.”

People reach for technology such as smartphones to seek an immediate relief from stress and other concerns, but in the medium to long term, this can cause low mood, attention issues, ruminative thinking, stress, anxiety and depression. For example, excessive use of social and other digital media can also increase social comparison within the workplace, which can contribute to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem in the long term. 

Professionals are particularly susceptible to problematic social media use, says Professor Spada, who also works as a consultant CBT practitioner at Onebright. Younger professionals in particular might be gaming to a problematic degree, he says: “I’ve worked with many young professionals who are gaming until two, three or four o’clock in the morning, four or five days a week. Then they’re wondering why their performance is affected, their concentration levels have fallen, they’re late for work and have a low mood.”

That fall in productivity is an early signal that someone might be struggling, as are sudden mood changes indicating anxiety or depression. These signs are cumulative, as low productivity results in stress and anxiety, depression and burnout. 

“It can result in what I call secondary procrastination,” says Professor Spada. “It’s not active, such as, ‘I don't want to study for an exam.’ It’s more ‘I can't do anything because I’ve run out of resources.’ So you put it off until you get better, but you never get better.”

At this stage, technology addiction can lead to other kinds of addictions, such as gambling, or abuse of alcohol and other substances. “Alcohol could be the tertiary addiction that the individual turned to in order to regulate their mood. There are gateways and pathways between all addictions.” 

It’s important to note that technology in itself is not inherently negative, says Dr Rina Bajaj, chartered counselling psychologist and author of The Magic in Me. The critical thing is to strike a healthy balance with your technology use: “The features and design of technology, such as notifications, likes and infinite scrolling, are often created to keep users engaged and coming back for more.”

Company culture can play a part in mitigating this, she explains: “The constant connectivity and availability of technology can mean that employees may feel compelled to constantly check and respond to emails and other forms of communication, which impacts on work-life balance. It can also lead to an increase in ‘technostress’, where the need to keep up with rapid technological advancements can lead to employees feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or inadequate when faced with technological changes.” 

Employers should promote flexible work arrangements, encourage ‘unplugging’ after work hours and emphasise the importance of downtime, Dr Bajaj advises. Ensure there are resources available to employees and access to counselling or employee assistance programmes.

“Additionally, individuals themselves can prioritise self-care, set realistic expectations, seek support from colleagues and mentors, and practice stress management techniques to maintain their mental well-being in high-pressure roles.”

Leaders play a crucial role in managing the mental health risks associated with high-pressure roles, she says. It’s important that they foster a supportive work culture that prioritises employee wellbeing. This includes promoting open communication, empathy and psychological safety. “Encourage team members to share their challenges, concerns and successes openly, without fear of judgement or reprisal.” 

The first step is to listen, learn and observe your working environment to determine where problems might lie, says author and psychotherapist and logotherapist Eloise Skinner: “Employees will be the best source of information on the experience of the workplace, so asking them about their daily experiences with workplace technology (or having them report on the topic confidentially) would be a good first step. Once the core issues have been identified, leaders can respond with tailored, personalised solutions – for example, setting clear expectations about boundaries between working and personal lives, or establishing more personal connections between members of the team.”

Professor Spada recommends a strong 7pm cut-off for emails, and recommends that we enforce the same in our home lives. “I’ve recommended this approach to many professional services firms. Switch off all devices from 7pm. Take a screen break. Television is fine as it’s not interactive. Give your eyes a rest from blue light devices. It will make a big difference.”

Mental health & wellbeing

ICAEW works with caba to promote the mental health of chartered accountants and their families. Take a look through these articles, guides, webinars and events.

ICAEW mental health wellbeing team bonding communication

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